August 30, 2023
By Dr Kathy Weston
I joined a very important club this month, a club that all parents will belong to at some point and, once a member, I promise you'll see the world slightly differently. Things aren’t quite the same when you have been through the emotional rollercoaster of waiting for high stakes exam results.
Speaking personally, your sleep may be disrupted, you may struggle to focus at work and become mentally fatigued reflecting on what your teen had said ‘on the day’ about each exam. You think they might have done really well in some subjects, but then you seriously doubt yourself and don’t want to ‘jinx it’. You worry they may have messed up in some uncharacteristic way that will result in their grades being skewed. You dread mopping up their disappointment. You read headlines that warn of impending grade deflation. Your teen reads them too. You remind them that perhaps the exams aren’t quite as important as they think, but inside you know that isn’t quite the case. You wonder if you did quite enough to support them through the process of 26 exams. Maybe I shouldn’t have attended that BBQ the night before English Language? My husband questioned whether he should have played golf on the eve of Chemistry Paper 2! The ruminations morph into dread as ‘results day’ beckons and nerves are on tenterhooks. When and where will the parental angst end?
You hear from other parents who are starting to plan ‘results morning’ (a big thing) and you get a sense of all the decisions that have to be made. Will my child go alone into their school? What did the school advise? Where is that letter that they sent? Or was it an email? Is it ok to plan a celebratory dinner or is that a step too far? Well-wishers’ comments, texts and cards add to the sense of expectation. Grandparents ring up to remind your teen that the only thing that matters in life is good health, but also insist you call them ASAP when you know the grades.
Truth is, no matter how calm you want to be ahead of results day, it demands a unique form of resilience in the form of a balancing act; keeping your own nerves under wraps and quietly mulling over outcomes, whilst pretending life is absolutely normal. The ‘holiday halo’ has worn off by now and you need another one ASAP.
Results day arrives and you keep using the phrase, “it is just like pulling off a plaster” in reference to opening the envelope or the email. Your teen appears to be shaking a bit (in a way that you have never witnessed). There is nothing you can do except watch the moment unfold. You clasp your hands together, silently wait in an adjacent room and listen out for keyboard clicks. For many, this very personal and significant moment happens in a public space, perhaps the school hall, with peers, teachers and parents present. For some, the results aren’t what they hoped for. Well laid plans might feel like they are unravelling and stress levels might rise. Everyone’s story ends differently.
Once the surprise or shock dissipates of any ‘result’, we can support our children by allowing them to feel whatever they are feeling. It might be X and Y; astonished and relieved, shocked and disappointed. Gently validating their feelings over time can help, as can giving them words for their feelings. Give them time. The work that we do in our general parenting, the closeness that we build with our children over time undoubtedly helps in these moments as they (and we) recalibrate. Part of a resilient mindset is focusing on ‘the controllables’ and if things have not gone to plan, we can shift to Plan B. Can things be remarked or re-sat for example? Can they work out why the paper didn’t go well and use that knowledge to improve performance in future exams? Can they take steps to talk to school staff about future plans? Reminding our children that there are plenty of people who can support and help them with next steps is key to moving on.
So, that is how some parents might have experienced results’ day, but what about the teachers? I was lucky enough to spend time in several secondary schools last week and had an insight into the rollercoaster they ride at this time of year. It will come as no surprise that they feel just as nerve-wracked as we do. Disrupted sleep and anticipatory anxiety characterised many headteachers’ and teachers’ experience of the run-up to results’ day. Why? Because, like us, they care deeply and want to know that they have done an optimal job in supporting the young people in their care.
You have seen the adverts in the shops. It is ‘back to school’ time and whilst it is important to purchase the shoes, uniform and new pencil case, it is also a good idea to talk to your child about what school is ‘for’ in the first place!
Schools are meant to be centres for learning and, with that in mind, whilst we might wish our children a good day, don’t be afraid to remind them that they also go there to learn and work hard. Setting gentle expectations around behaviour also matters. Perhaps your child is just starting secondary school. Have you had conversations with them about your family values and how you hope that they treat other children? We also need to have a word with ourselves. We all hope that our children will make a best friend or set of friends rapidly, but it’s good to remember that forming friendships takes time.
Following the school day, it can be tempting to bombard children with questions as soon as they arrive through the door. This is generally ill-advised because they are tired and, prior to dinner, they are highly unlikely to give you the best account of the day. If we can wait a little bit, perhaps until later in the evening, before enquiring about aspects of the day, they might just open up in ways that mean you get a better insight into how things went. Give them time. Listen well. If they grumble about their day, validate how they are feeling (“I can see you are a bit unsure, and that is OK”), and tell them it is normal to feel a little uncertain, or experience a range of emotions during these early weeks. Remember that school staff are experts at the settling in process and have years and years of experience, helping students feel at home. Know they are your allies through transition and be guided by their messaging and reassurance.
Now, back to learning. No matter what age your child is, research suggests that a positive home learning environment provides the best platform from which your child can thrive in school. I am going to focus on one aspect of this: conversations around the dinner table. The more we can talk to our children, open up their thinking and develop their oracy at home, the better. Indeed, research suggests that the amount of dialogue in our homes is a strong predictor for children’s academic achievement. ‘Dinnertime debriefs’ are the engine room for emotional resilience too; we share daily struggles, coping strategies and family stories. Research by Cambridge PhD student, Mishika Mehrotra suggests that family talk can boost children’s self-esteem and even lower the risk of anxiety and depression. Even if we live apart from our children during term-time, we can still ensure that we focus on the quality of conversations we enjoy with them. Technology happily facilitates such interaction.
Not every child is enthusiastic about returning to, or starting, school. What does research suggest parents could do to help?
I asked one of the world’s leading educational scientists this question. Pedro de Bruyckere, himself a parent, suggested that we start by imbuing family life with routines again. While routines may seem boring, they can help your child focus and even help them do better in school. Indeed, there is some convincing research evidence that suggests young people who claim to have “lacked structure and direction” are less content and confident than their peers. Why is this? Pedro suggests it is because our working memory capacity, which we need for learning, is limited. He told me, “If a lot in your life is predictable because it has become routine, you will have more space free in your brain and feel less unrest”. Connected to this, he also recommends that we all ensure our children (even teens) have sufficient sleep and are going to bed at a regular time each night. Maybe your child has been staying up later during the holidays, but if you want them to be more motivated, learn more and behave better, good sleep is certainly part of the answer. It’s correct that most adolescents will think they ‘aren’t tired yet’, but they often are. Luckily, as Pedro points out, “nature found a solution for this developmental problem: annoying parents”. And, as suggested in his brilliant blog, it’s worth the struggle.
So once children are in school and attending lessons every day, how can we motivate them to learn? What could Pedro tell us about that? “First, we know that learning more often will lead to wellbeing than vice versa. So, creating a situation where children can learn, as I just described, will help a bit. But you can do much more, like being a role model. Don’t say ‘Oh, I hated school too’, or ‘I also thought mathematics was boring when I was at school’. It may have been the case, but such sentences will not help your child. It is much better to show genuine interest in what your child has learned in school”. A study from 2021 on motivation referenced here shows the complex relationship between motivation and achievement. An important element is “perceived performance”. A child won’t become motivated to learn, if they don’t notice that they have actually learned something. Be a mirror for your child and be genuinely impressed with the progress you notice in their learning process.
“Let’s be honest”, as Pedro says, “in the coming weeks, many miracles will happen in school that we take for granted too often”. Young children will learn to read, teens will begin to understand how the world works, new languages will be spoken and multiple social and physical skills developed. You see, schools aren’t just places where children go each day, they are places where miracles unfold. Educators are master alchemists and we are their partners on this magical learning journey.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
If you have enjoyed Pedro’s tips, Tooled Up teachers can watch Pedro chatting with us in a webinar for school staff, where he refreshingly summarises ‘what’s new’ in the world of educational research and what’s now ‘out of date’. We also highly recommend his books to both educators and parents. He has written various popular scientific books such as Urban Myths about Learning and Education and his latest book is The Psychology of Great Teaching.
New to Tooled Up? Welcome to all of our new subscribers. To learn more about how to use our platform to benefit your family, join us on 13th September for a webinar hosted by our founder, Dr Kathy Weston. For those of you who want a quick list of benefits, take a peek here.
If you are joining a ‘Tooled Up School’ for the first time, you will likely have received a transition leaflet detailing specific resources to help you support your child through this next stage of their educational journey. Don’t forget that it lists many resources available in the Tooled Up library to support all of our children, from young preschoolers, right through to teens heading into sixth form.
We all need things to look forward to this autumn term. Why not check out our online talks, which you can attend live over the coming months:
6th September, 12pm BST – Supporting Early Maths Development in the Home Learning Environment with Dr Laura Outhwaite
13th September, 8pm BST – The Benefits of Being a Tooled Up Parent
14th September, 8pm BST – Starting School: Hitting the Ground Running (For all ages)
16th September, 4pm BST – Buying Your Child a Phone: Things for Parents to Consider
4th October, 10.30am BST – The Story of Afro Hair: A Book Discussion with Author Kandace Chimbiri and Professor Damien Page
10th November, 10am GMT – Expert Online ADHD Conference (Full day event)
14th November, 7pm GMT – Intercultural Couple Relationships with Dr Reenee Singh
5th December, 7.30pm GMT – An Insight into Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) with Kate King
Finally, over the next week or two, watch out for some changes to Tooled Up. We are currently upgrading our website to make it easier and more intuitive to use, to help you find exactly what you are looking for, even more quickly. You’ll still be able to access the site as normal whilst we work behind the scenes, so please do keep browsing and requesting new resources.