Supporting Children Through Exams

See also: Revision Skills

One of the hardest things to do as a parent is to let go.

There is a natural tendency to want to keep supporting your children, and helping them through life. Some parents take this to extremes, and may even try to do everything for their children.

Setting aside whether you think that is healthy for either child or parent, there is one area where you really cannot do it for them: exams.

At some point, your child will have to go into an exam room, and sit and do an exam for themselves. So what can you do to help them to prepare for this moment? This page provides some ideas.

It’s not about you

It is important to remember that your child’s performance in exams is not about you. It does not reflect on you in any way. If they choose not to work, that is their problem, not yours.

(Well, maybe it’s yours too, but not in quite the same way).

One of our key jobs as parents is to help our children to develop their own intrinsic motivation. This means the capacity to want to do things because they are worth doing, and not because someone else is standing over them telling them that they must.

Standing over your child telling them to revise, and how to do it, does NOT help them to develop their own intrinsic motivation.

There is more about intrinsic motivation on our page: Self-Motivation.

It is, however, perfectly reasonable to help your child to think through the consequences of failure, which might include, for example:

  • Having to retake a year or more’s schooling; or
  • Not being able to attend the college of their choice, or study the subject of their choice.

It is, however, important to stress that this is about helping them to become aware of what might happen, not forcing them to work by another route.

Remember: you want your child to develop the motivation to work for themselves.

Developing Habits of Studying

First of all, it is vital to remember that studying does not start at the point of taking major exams. Like developing independence, it is an ongoing process. It starts when your children first have spellings to learn, or homework to do, and continues throughout their school life.

The approach that you take to homework will help to determine how your child develops study skills.

Nobody expects a six-year-old to manage to remember to do their homework, and do it entirely alone. Equally, their homework is for them, not for you. Your support and encouragement is important, but if you do it for them, the school will not know if they are struggling. It is important to find a balance, and to maintain it throughout their school career.

There is more about this in our page on Supporting Formal Learning.

It is important to develop a strategy for supporting studying that works for you and your child, but at the very least it needs:

  • To help your child to develop habits of studying effectively on their own; and
  • To enable you to stay abreast of your child’s work, and provide help if necessary. This may be from your own knowledge, or advice about research, or even a note to the school to explain where a problem lies.

For more about how to create an environment that is suitable for study, and encouraging study skills, you may find our Study Skills section helpful.


Support and encouragement = good.

Doing it for them = bad.

Helping Your Child to Revise

Let us then assume that your child has developed good habits of independent study, and generally lets you know if and when he or she has any problems.

What can you do to support them when they come to revise for exams, whether school or public?

First, you may want to read our page on Revision Skills, and encourage them to do so too.

This will give you both some helpful ideas about good practice for revision.

Second, it may be helpful to ask your child what support, if any, they would like from you during exams.

For example, would they like you to be available for discussions, or to ferry them to school for some extra classes, or provide any additional resources, or even to help them draw up a realistic revision plan?

It is a good idea to choose your moment for this discussion, and make sure that they do not see it as you nagging them to revise, but rather an opportunity for them to say what they need from you.

If you think you may find this difficult, try reading our pages on Verbal Communication, Improving Communication and Communicating in Difficult Circumstances.

Thirdly, you need to make sure that you provide a suitable environment for study.

Nobody is suggesting that you should turn your house into a library, with ‘Silence’ rules for large chunks of the time.

You may, however, need to make sure that noisy and disruptive younger siblings are out of the way, or at least kept busy and quiet for most of the day. Organising playdates at other houses might be a good option, as also could be using grandparents or other childcare options. Taking younger siblings out for a treat may make the older one feel a bit left-out, so it may be better to avoid this if possible.

Fourthly, make sure that they are looking after themselves.

It is all too easy, when you’re studying, to forget to eat. With parents working, many teenagers may be accustomed to feeding themselves, but revision periods may be the time to break this habit. Try to make sure that your child has a good cooked meal each day, and that they are eating a healthy, balanced diet.

For more, see our pages on Food, Diet and Nutrition.

It is also important to make sure that your child is getting enough sleep, and plenty of exercise. You may need to lead by example here, and take them out for a walk or a bike ride, or to the swimming pool, to give them a break from studying.

For more, see our pages on The Importance of Exercise, What is Sleep? and The Importance of Sleep.

The Skills You Need Guide to Life eBook covers a lot of areas designed to help you, or your child, maintain a healthy body and mind.

What Happens if it All Goes Wrong?

The million-dollar question: what if your child has failed one or more of their exams, despite all their (and your) efforts?

They then have to work out what to do next.

There are likely to be some fairly straightforward options, depending on the timing of their failure:

  • They may be able to retake the year, either at the same school or at another;
  • They may be able to move onto the next stage, while continuing to study one or more subjects with a view to retaking at the end of the year;
  • They may simply be able to move onto the next stage, depending on the subject(s) they have failed.

These options will depend on the school or college, and you should encourage your child to go and talk to their teacher(s) about options as early as possible.

If necessary, you may want to go too, but encourage your child to be actively involved in the conversation: after all, it’s their life for the next year or more that you are discussing.

It may also be worth discussing more radical options: a complete change of direction, perhaps, such as looking into apprenticeships that allow on-the-job learning. It may be that academic study is simply not for them, and an alternative would be better.

Remember: it is very easy for a child or young person to focus on what is in front of them, without thinking about whether it suits them. Failing exams is a chance to re-evaluate what they want to do.

Failure as a symptom of something else

It is not unknown for failing exams to be a symptom of a bigger problem, particularly an undiagnosed learning difficulty such as dyslexia.

Rather than assuming that your child has simply failed to work hard enough, it may be worth discussing what problems and issues they have found during the year: have they, for example, struggled to get through reading lists, or found it difficult to understand some of the concepts for no obvious reason?

If so, they may need additional help, and you should discuss this with the school or college.