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How do I help my child prepare for exams?
I have a teenager with ADHD who struggles with test taking, especially when it comes to math. He has failed one portion of Grade 10 math twice so far. One teacher suggested that it’s the test writing that gets to him but no one has told us how to handle this, can you help?
The struggle is real.
Thanks for writing in. It appears like your son is stuck in the mire of past failures and consumed by the fear of repeating them in the future, therefore, he needs to replace this storyline with a different, more helpful inner dialogue.
One process you might use is positive thought reinforcement modelling. You could lead your son through a visualization exercise (or have him do it on his own time). With soft background music, invite him to lie down and breathe deeply and easily for a few minutes. Once he’s settled into a restful state, invite him to think about something in the past that he has succeeded in. Encourage him to feel the happiness that he felt in that moment of achievement. Then invite him to imagine himself writing the exam with calmness and clarity, receiving a passing grade.
In order for this to be successful, this has to be practised for several weeks before the big day. I have used this technique not only to overcome my own fears of public speaking but also with multiple students over the years with amazing results.
It sounds like your son is meeting the outcomes for math throughout the term but gets tripped up over the exam which he’s trying to do in a state of stress and panic. Physiologically speaking, when we enter a state of panic (or fight or flight) our thinking mind shuts down while our survival instinct takes over. While this comes in handy when we’re facing an emergency, it’s not a great state for writing an exam.
Sometimes shifting our perspective toward an event can change everything. Just as an athlete trains for a race, your son can approach his math exam with a similar mindset; as a challenge that will propel him into new realms of greatness and growth.
One of the most effective ways to calm the nervous system and regulate emotions is the breath. As Blair mentioned, your son can begin a simple breathing practice weeks before the exam by first becoming aware of the nature of the breath in various situations to help understand what situations trigger short, shallow breathing which activates the fight or flight reaction.
With this awareness, he can then implement easy circle breathing, imagining that his in-breath is travelling up one side of the circle, and his out-breath is flowing down the other side in a smooth and steady rhythm. Throughout the day he can draw his attention to deep and full breathing, training his body to breathe evenly through various experiences, especially math class. This practice will help him to stay calm so he can access his rational mind, where math answers reside.
Since he has ADHD and may become distracted, it might also be beneficial for him to write the exam on his own. Most teachers are amenable to special requests like writing in a quiet room or playing calming music through earbuds.
In the end, let’s also acknowledge the power of a mother’s love. Having you there supporting him along his journey is a blessing that will continue to fuel his self-esteem, no matter the outcome.
Blair Abbass and Jenny Kierstead are certified therapists, award winning educators and partners in life and business. They are the co-founders of Breathing Space Yoga Studio/Teacher Training, Yoga in Schools and Girl on Fire. They have been married for 17 years, but who’s counting?