Supporting Your Teen Through Exams

If your teen is in their exam years it can be a very stressful time – for both of you. Exams are not the be all and end all for your teen and these years are a great way to help prepare them for the world of employment in the years ahead. Life can at times be stressful, overwhelming and challenging at times and learning to handle these situations is an important factor in growing up. It is also wise to remember that while your child was learning to walk, they fell down many times before they succeeded and this may be true of their senior years at school. When your teen was an infant, you encouraged, praised and gently supported their efforts and the same applies to exam years. The difference is perhaps, that you are now taking the role of the guide on the side, the coach, rather than the parent/teacher, and allowing them to work through the challenging times with your support.

Here are some tips to support them through the year.

Continue the normal routine: Keep everything as normal as possible at home. Ensure they maintain their sport, cultural activities, church commitments or what ever they enjoy doing. Encourage your teen to continue to join in family life and keep up with their weekly chores around the home. This will help them see that the year is just like any other and the expectations remain the same.

Discuss expectations: What do exams mean to your teen? Are they a means to the end, a necessary part of school, or are they something that they must do their absolute best in? Must they get A’s in every subject or do they just want to get enough to pass? Remember this is their exam year and not yours! If they choose to not work, that is their problem. Encourage them, however you cannot force them. Help them think through the consequences of action and inaction.If they choose not to work that is their problem not yours. Personally, my son was clear he didn’t want to go to University (and be shouldered with a student loan and a degree he might not ever use.) All the encouragement fell on ‘deaf ears’ and he did enough to pass, except in his last year. He is now happily employed in a full time job, loving life and has saved 30% of his salary towards buying his first home. He may continue his learning later in life, and when he has a clear purpose and reason.
Give help, but don’t control – this is a time for learning self management skills, learning to learn and personal responsibility.

Know their schedule: Encourage your teen to timetable and plan the year. Their brain is not fully developed until the mid twenties and time management is a skill probably still developing. Make up a year planner with assessments marked in, alongside their personal activities and commitments. This will help them keep track of what needs to be completed when and help the family know when the pressure might be rising. Ensure there is appropriate flexibility within their schedule as things change and opportunities will arise throughout the year. I learned my best time management during my exam years as I was swimming 13 times a week, and traveling to swim meets most weekends over the summer. I developed strategies that I still implement today.

Know how to study: This might seem obvious, however it is not for many. There is a huge difference between doing homework in the early years of school and studying. The former is about doing what the teacher has assigned and handing it in for marking. Studying is memorising content and learning what you don’t know to pass a test or exam. It is worth pointing out that just because your teen is spending time looking over their notes and books, this ‘busy’ work may not be an effective way to learn. 27 study tips can be found by downloading the FREE app iStudyAlarm.

Provide nutritious snacks: Did you know whilst the brain in only 3% of the total body weight, it uses over 20% of the fuel (food) when learning. Studying takes energy. Keeping the fridge full of healthy food is a great way to support your teen. Fresh fruit & vegetables, nuts, wholegrain bread, and water are all essential for great brain focus. Avoid sugar drinks, caffeinated products such as coffee, tea and energy drinks, MSG (often found in 2 minute noodles) and high sugar nut or protein bars as these might cause a temporary spike in energy and will result in a bigger low and a crash later on.

Create a great learning environment: It is important for your teen to have a place that they study. This could be at the kitchen table, a desk and chair in their room, a favourite chair or bean bag etc. Most teens work best with low lighting. Ensure they have the equipment they require such as coloured makers, note paper, pens, etc. Not all teens react well to a quiet study zone and if they are playing music, it is recommended they use music without words or classical Baroque music quietly in the background.

Get them to ‘teach’ you: One of the best ways to know you know or have learned something is to teach or explain it to others. Saying the information aloud will also reinforce it in the memory. Ask your teen to ‘teach’ you what they have been learning.

Take frequent breaks: Long periods of study can be detrimental to recall as the brain gets tired and loses focus. Research recommends studying in short bursts such as 20 minutes on and a 5 minute break. This way the brain has time to rest, and also gives time to process the information. Download the FREE app iStudyAlarm to assist with this.

Ensure they are sleeping sufficiently: Teens require a surprising amount of sleep to keep their brains at their best. Quality sleep provides both mental and physical rest and is when the brain consolidates the learning from the day. Check your teens room is dark at night and there are no blue lights from phones or devices. Any blue light will inhibit the body making melatonin, the hormone required for quality sleep.

Maintain your positivity: Be extra aware over the weeks surrounding exams and big assessments and provide extra grace for crankiness and eye rolls. Study is not always fun and easy – if it was, everyone would do it! Research clearly shows parent stress can have a negative effect on your teen’s self-esteem and performance, which might perpetuate the cycle of stress. Maintain your positive support, praise their efforts. Remember the only control you have is the positive relationship you have with your teen. Be gentle if they fail – we all do, and this is often when the biggest learnings occur.

It is always important to remember, exams do not measure intelligence, kindness, caring, fun, generosity, creativity, people skills or the readiness for life beyond school. They measure how much they can remember and recall in a timed, somewhat stressful situation.


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Published on Wednesday, January 23rd, 2019, under Family, Parenting, Study Skills

Karen Tui Boyes is a champion for Life Long Learning across nations, industries and organisations. Winner of the NZ Educator of the Year 2017 and 2014 and the NZ Speaker of the Year award in 2013 & 2019, Karen is a sought after speaker who continually gets rave reviews from audiences around the world. Her dynamic style and highly informative content—which turns the latest educational research into easy-to-implement strategies and techniques — sets her apart from others in her field.

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