How to support your child during exams

This blog is based on a training that I deliver to parents in schools to help them provide exam support to their children.

As we all know the exam season is very stressful for children. However, it is especially stressful for parents! Often parents don’t know what to do and how to help and this is an extremely painful experience for them. They’re desperate to help their child and really want to see them doing well and feeling good during the exams but all too often students are going into crisis and having meltdowns. It is excruciating for parents to feel that all they can do is stand on the sidelines helplessly.

One of the most important things I have learned as a clinician is the power of being able to listen effectively. This can significantly ease stress and also very powerfully help with problem solving.

Active Listening and why it is so powerful:

First of all let’s look at the process of active listening and why this is such a powerful tool. There are four levels of listening.

  • Level one – we’re not listening. I’ve done this, we’ve all done this!  Often we have done this when we’re really busy and we don’t feel we’ve got time or the headspace to listen.


  • Level two – we look like we’re listening! We are wearing the mask of listening and we might have even fooled ourselves that we are listening – let alone the other person. Many students will know this experience. I was particularly good at this one in class!


  • Level three – this is when we’re properly listening. We’ve put time aside, we’ve made a conscious decision to focus and pay attention and we are genuinely trying to take in what is being said to us. However, at this level it is basically a rational process and we may feel in our own minds that we are doing this as a precursor to trying to solve their problems for them.


  • Level four – empathetic listening. This is the highest level of listening. It doesn’t happen very often but when it does it feels amazing. We just have to remember back to the last time we felt properly listened to and that the other person was sharing our feelings and our experience with us. At this level our heart is involved in the process. When we are doing this our focus is generally not on problem solving, we are just trying to be present with the other person and share how they feel.


Part of the problem I face as an academic coach and therapist is that when students come to see me there is always a problem and they want it fixing. Sometimes they are even in crisis and they feel that they need solutions now. The same is true for parents. Often your child will come to you because they are struggling, there’s an issue or they are in full blown meltdown. At this point the temptation is to want to alleviate their distress immediately by solving their problems.

I feel the temptation too and it’s reasonable that I would because students coming to see me want me to deliver an impact. That is a reasonable part of their expectations. Parents feel the same way. They want to solve their child’s problems and if they don’t they will feel that they have failed their child when they were in distress.

However, we just need to pause for a moment and think about just how complicated the issues that students and your children will be facing. It is very likely that they have been managing a number of issues over a period of time and even though you know them well, it is very important to allow them the space to talk about those issues and essentially to think out loud about them.

Time to think:

This brings me to a very important author called Nancy Klein and her book ‘Time to Think’. Essentially what Nancy is saying is that most people need to think out loud in order to think clearly. What Nancy is advocating is that we as a listener enable the other person to think. That this is fundamentally our role in the situation. She also adds that most of what we see when someone is in our company trying to think, is our impact on them. Our impact can be positive or negative and will significantly affect the quality of their thinking about their dilemma or problems.

It therefore becomes really important that our impact is positive and encouraging and supports that other person to feel safe enough to think out loud and to think freely. Nancy also says that the quality of my listening directly support the quality of your thinking.

So I encourage parents (and staff) to take a step back from the role of problem solver. It is extremely easy to fall into that role and it is part of the role we take on when we support young people. However, if we just roll it forward over the weeks, months and years and imagine that our role is one of providing solutions and advice on every occasion – what we are creating is a scenario of dependency. Most parents actually want their children to grow up to be resilient problem solvers. Our role therefore is to support young people to think for themselves. Within this situation we have a very important role and it is a very skilled role in which we help that another to think about their situation fully and ask them questions so that we fully understand their situation too.

When I am working with a student I am always asking myself do I fully understand their situation? By taking this approach I find that there are so many breakthrough moments because my questions and my desire to fully understand all of the issues helps the student to think in a new way. Whenever a student says to me “good question” I know that we are on the right track because it means I am asking them to think in ways they haven’t thought before. The impact for the student is that they can come up with their own solutions and when they do they feel capable and resourceful.

I should just say though – if there is a student or young person in crisis there are times and places when we MUST jump in and provide advice and support quickly. In general we know when these occasions are. They are clear and the high levels of distress are clear.

Giving advice blocks thinking:

However, I feel there are many times when we close down someone else’s thinking by giving them “top of the head” advice. Giving advice is the worst thing for problem solving. It blocks the other person from thinking out loud. They are now having to explain to us why our solutions won’t work, derailing their creative thinking and possibly leaving them feeling patronised and misunderstood. Remember – any problems that your child is facing will have been with them for some time and they will have thought through a number of very obvious solutions and why they don’t work for them.

In summary:

A key way support young people is to help them to think for themselves. Questions such as ‘what would it look like if you were getting what you needed?”, “How might this situation change for the better?” are questions that ask us to go deeper into the issue and imagine where the solutions could lie. Practice makes perfect with this. But just a tiny shift in our goal when we are wanting to support others can have a radically helpful impact. I encourage you to just give it a try and see what happens.