April 12, 2023
Tooled Up and Engaged
By Dr Kathy Weston
Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that my longstanding handle has been ‘Parent Engage’. Parental engagement in children’s lives and learning is central to my work and something that I feel passionate about. But what do we mean by parental engagement? How can we do it optimally?
I am in the thick of GCSE exam revision season with my eldest son. There are two months to go before he is sitting in that exam hall (measured here in weeks). As such, this means his work rather than my work is at the forefront of my mind as I close my eyes at night. Chatter among other parents online across various support groups reveals a wide variety of parental attitudes towards teens’ revision. The ‘We just leave them to it’ brigade are infinitely more relaxed than the ‘angry naggers’; shouting, bribing and berating their ‘lazy’ teens. Somewhere in the middle are the hovering “consciously trying to look relaxed parents” who care deeply and who want to encourage, but don’t want to put teens under too much pressure. These parents might spend many moments considering how they can help and serendipitously monitoring their child’s progress. I consider myself one of them.
But is there an optimal approach? I have observed and thought about different parenting approaches to children’s learning and teen revision for some time now. I have also casually followed outcomes. Two anecdotes stick in my mind and that have shaped my view about the importance of parental engagement during this critical period in teens’ lives and in the importance of remaining authoritative not just about study and revision but about other aspects of adolescence.
Many years ago, I met a mum whose two teens were doing their A Levels and GCSEs in the same year (the double whammy!). I was a house visitor at the time and was taken on a tour of the house to meet the kids. It was approximately two weeks before A Levels but you could hear music in bedrooms, chatter between siblings and well, everyone seemed in a terribly good mood! I distinctly remember this parent telling me cheerily that she ‘just leaves them to it’ when I remarked on how relaxed they all seemed. I recall thinking how these teens were experiencing an altogether different experience to my own growing up. In one year, my brother was studying for A Levels and I was approaching GCSEs. Study time was pretty serious albeit peppered with interruptions of tea and toast or the occasional break for Pac man! Admittedly, my brother was an extremely hard-working role model and I wasn’t as industrious as him, but he set the tone for sure. Our motivation was also undoubtedly shaped by parental expectation. We had parents who placed a high value on learning and study and we lived in a society where education was seen as a powerful route towards economic and social mobility.
To finish my first anecdote, one sunny August day, of the same year that I visited that lady’s home, I received a panicked call from her (as I working as an educational consultant at the time) asking for practical assistance, as her son had failed every A Level and had no educational place to move to. She was upset and genuinely worried about his future. It was clear she deeply regretted trusting the process (and her son) to do what he needed to do in preparation for these important, gateway exams.
My second anecdote relates to another desperate call that I received from a parent many years ago, but this time from a parent whose son seemed despondent and disinterested in his upcoming exams. It was around April time yet he struggled to articulate which subjects he was covering, which topics or which texts for English Literature. On visiting him at home, there was zero sign of organised effort; a tangible absence of notes, flashcards, post-it notes or textbooks and he did not know when his exams actually were. I felt worried, but promised him we would start from beginning and reassured him it was never too late to start revision! We started untangling the organisational weeds. We got folders ready per subject. We went through a hideous pile of papers and sorted them into ‘useful or ‘useless’. We read emails from teachers he had consistently ignored and responded with apologies and pertinent questions. By the end of the day, some sun had emerged behind the clouds of procrastination, a revision timetable was up on the wall and he seemed slightly more hopeful.
One of the most useful exercises we did was working out per subject where the ‘knots’ were; what were the subjects he worried about most, which areas of those subjects made him feel sick to his stomach and what aspects he just didn’t ‘get’. We worked together to minimise his anxiety so that he felt more in control and to give him a sense that he wasn’t really starting from zero. He already knew stuff, had already submitted coursework for two subjects and had access to helpful teachers by email.
Reader, you will be pleased to know that not only did this lovely young man do well in his exams, many years later, he published a book and scribed a dedication to me within it, where he reflected on how the outcomes may have been very different without my intercession that day. What I did wasn’t rocket science, nor did it require any special qualification. I simply helped him establish the organisational ‘stabilisers’ he needed to get going before we could ‘let go of the saddle’.
Organisation is absolutely key to doing well in exams and it is not easy for our teens whose bodies, minds and inclinations at this particular developmental stage are being pulled in many more interesting directions. Just as the revision and exam period starts and focus is required, their brains are driving them towards the need to socialise! I genuinely feel for them. Our job is acutely important during what can be a tumultuous time emotionally, socially and academically.
As parents, we might not want to micro-manage every detail in the way that I have described above, but we do need to help them gently audit where they are at this stage. We should bear their exam timetable in mind as we plan weekends, holidays or family events. We ought to remember that they need us, in the background to observe, care and helpfully nudge them along. The role of the engaged parent is to take an interest, ask the right questions of our children in ways that don’t panic them and ensure that they have as much access to a quiet space whilst being doused in encouragement and as many nutritional Scooby snacks as possible!
If you have a very demotivated teen at home, remember that what looks like laziness or disinterest might be anxiety or panicked worry in disguise. Perhaps try a slightly different approach and focus on the bits in their schedule they are really looking forward to (a sport’s match or family get together) and work backwards. Can they promise to do some revision that day ahead of the family BBQ at night? What might that look like?
Effective revision is about quality over quantity so how can we be sure when our teens do revise, they’re working in a way that could make a tangible difference to outcomes? How can we sustain motivation once we see the green shoots of engagement? What is our role in the revision process?
Many parents reading this will have motivated children, who are up at the crack of dawn, have established daily goals and are happily moving through them. For most of us, this isn’t the case and I particularly feel for parents who don’t want to leave their teens to it, but their teen won’t let them near their revision schedule or even entertain a chat about it! These students may want to be in control and may require some reassurance that you won’t take over, shout or remove their desire for autonomy over the process.
What can I suggest here? Moving gently. Perhaps these parents can first lean into their child’s assertion that all is well and ask to be reassured to that effect. So, you might not demand to see what they are doing every single day, but you do ask for assurance at the top and tail of each week that they have established some achievable goals and are on their way to meeting them. You praise them for the fact they are self-assured but also show a real interest in what they are learning. “I am really pleased you said you were doing some history this morning, tell me something you’ve been reading about” you might ask, or could you say: “I am really pleased you feel in control of your revision and don’t seem worried, what is going well for you right now?”. Innocuous questions but they contain positive nudges that require reflective responses. Acknowledge how hard this period is for them and open the door to them help-seeking. If they admit they absolutely hate a particular topic, for example, warmly welcome this admission and ask them to tell you more. Praise their courage for admitting they are struggling. They may not want you to look over what they don’t understand, but would they be open to assistance from others? What about that older student who lives nearby who sat the same exam last year? What about a knowledgeable aunt or uncle? Could they contact their teacher or tutor directly? Parental engagement might not mean we have all the answers ourselves, but we can certainly facilitate access to others who can help.
Use praise effectively. When you catch your teen studying and getting stuck into study, try and take them aback with your words. Whisper how impressed you are with their approach. Gently pat them on the shoulder and tell them you are impressed with the way they have stuck with it.
As you tell from above, the manner in which we interact with our children during these stressful periods is important. Keeping our own anxiety under check is key. Can you offload to someone else? Try and think about things we can control and things we can’t. Consider all of the pillars of good mental health critical to our teens’ mood, motivation and learning and tick some things off.
Think about the quality of sleep they are getting and consider what you can do to improve it. Research suggests we should remain pretty authoritative about sleep even with older teens. Those persistent nudges that they get to bed, keep the phones out of the bedroom (even just during revision periods) should serve them well. Next up, diet. Do they have healthy revision snacks available to them? Can you help with breakfast to ensure it is substantial and nutritious?
During this revision period, there is a tremendous amount to balance out. As well as revising, teens might also be in the first throws of a new romance, may fear about being left out of social scenes, and may need to balance the demands of revision with a sports’ schedule or a new job. Acknowledge this is a tough period in their lives, reassure them it will pass and that they aren’t alone. You are ‘in it together’.
It is unreasonable to think that anyone is going to be in a fantastic mood during revision for 8-10 subjects with two months to go; learning is hard, revision can be tough. Teens’ moods typically fluctuate but you might find you’re grumpier over this period too. It is likely you are shouldering some of the pressure and working mentally hard to ensure that what surrounds our teens feels as good as possible. Engaged parents consider the lot; home environment, regularity of meals, spaces to work, timetables, minimising stress whilst giving them something to look forward to at the end of this period.
Whilst supporting our teens, we do need to stay alert to any concerning, alarming or persistent changes in mood, sleep or eating patterns. Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to the onset of mental health conditions. If your teen express dark thoughts, appears upset, tearful or seem excessively anxious, don’t hesitate to talk to a clinician about your observations and concerns.
For those of you with younger children, far from the ‘big exam’ years, trust me when I say they creep up on you quicker than you can possibly imagine. What can you do in earlier years to give your child a good chance of doing well in exams? How can you protect their mental health whilst remaining authoritative and aspirational?
First of all, know that the ‘home learning environment’ that children are steeped in matters a great deal in terms of outcome. As the education Professor Charles Des Forges once asserted: it doesn’t matter how rich are poor we are, it is what we do with our children that matters’. Once upon meeting him, I insisted he tell me what we needed to do. He replied that some of the most powerful, simple and free things are the most effective. Let’s start with talking to our children about anything and everything. Family talk and the amount of dialogue spoken in your home is one of the great levers of academic attainment. Open up their thinking, ask them for their viewpoint and invite discussion whilst praising their ideas. Model intellectual humility.“That is good point, but I am wondering if there might be a different way to look at that.” or, “I like the point you are making, I’m taking that onboard”. The good news is ‘dinner time debriefs’ and family talk are also associated with less mental health distress as children grow and develop.
While you are talk to them (at whatever age) gently model language that takes an idea a little further, adopt slightly more challenging words and invite them into discussions where things aren’t too clearcut. Being able to occupy that intellectually uncomfortable space, being ok with not knowing will stand them in good stead for later learning. Be a family that loves challenge but that isn’t afraid of failure or making mistakes. Model a love of asking questions and admit when you don’t know the answer. Read to them, with them, alongside them and listen to them read. Rather than race through a book, pause and take time to admire the scenery in a story; chat about words that make you chuckle, discuss characters you like and dislike and seek your child’s viewpoint on what is happening or what might happen.
If you are living in a country where high stakes exams exist, talk about tests and assessments as useful snapshots teachers need to evidence how we are doing and progressing. Keep calm about the exams and develop family strategies for approaching exams and tests that everyone can get onboard with.
Model an approach to feedback that embraces the opportunity to grow and learn. Ensure your children know you will never be angry with them if they struggle. Explanations for why a child might struggle to learn can be multi-various and complex but mostly, they can be identified and children usefully supported, so always seek out professional advice.
Lastly, by attuning to our children’s interests at an early age, observing how they see and interact with the world, we can unlock important insights about what captures their attention and what they feel motivated to do; rich information that we can use to cultivate the kind of environment at home that will set them up for life and increase their appetite for learning.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
As we are in the thick of exam time, here are the best resources in our Tooled Up library for effective revision.
Help your teen audit how they are feeling and doing with their revision by using our new exam planner.
Interested in what effective learning looks like? In a recent Tooled Up podcast with Professor of Cognitive Psychology, Shana Carpenter, she highlighted the fact that ‘traditional’ revision techniques such as reading, copying and highlighting notes while helpful may not be the most effective way to revise and commit information to memory. Instead, getting stuck into the tough stuff and finding ways of exposing what students don’t know is key. Our teens can do this by regularly testing their knowledge with past papers for example, going over feedback from teachers where they made errors and having the courage to admit when they are really struggling. This can be daunting, as it exposes gaps in knowledge, but will help students learn more effectively. Shana suggests somespacing and retrieval techniques too, which parents and students might find insightful.
English teacher and GCSE examiner, Patrick Cragg, has created some resources for Tooled Up students studying Shakespeare for their upcoming GCSE exams. Patrick hasrecorded a webinar for parents to help them understand more about the exam, provided an excellentnotebook of key quotes and phrases for students studying Macbeth; and ashort recorded video exploring key motifs in the play! All of these interesting resources should help students consolidate their knowledge about the text and support them in their writing.
If you are abroad this Easter and visiting a beach, why not engage your teens with some science learning based on the GCSE curriculum? Science teacher, Lucy Haseler, has provided us with afantastic resource that you can use for inspiration and enjoyment.
How can we better support our teens who might be feeling the pressure? We have put together somehelpful questions to ask your teens ahead of exams, which can act as useful conversation prompts to use during different stages of their revision process.
Study time means getting those all important revision snacks right. Read what Paediatric dietitian, Anjanee Kohli, from City Dieticians says about optimal nutrition during revision and exam time.
Lastly, if you are a parent of a teen in the midst of revision mayhem, please pop along to an informal webinar this Saturday 15th April at 4pm. Dr Weston will be online to provide morale, tips and a listening ear to mums, dads and students alike! Very informal and all questions will be answered. Promise! Please note this session will not be recorded.