Don’t judge the Behaviour; Understand it’s source

Last night we heard that exams in May and June are being cancelled. Our daughter is 16 years old and is due to take her GCSEs this summer. She is also leaving her current school so today is likely to be her last day at this school as schools are likely to remain closed until September. So what response would you expect from a 16 year old in this situation?

The simple answer is that almost any emotional response would be valid as every individual student will have a different perspective, will have prepared in different ways and will have a different view about whether an alternative method of assessment will be fair, particularly in view of the fact that exams were what they prepared for. If they had known that they were to be judged on their mocks or coursework, or something else, then that’s where they would have applied their effort. As the saying goes “What gets measured, gets done.”

Noticing my daughter and her peer group react to the news, here were some of the emotions I witnessed:

Anger & frustration – many students have been working toward this point for most of their school lives, GCSEs have certainly been a topic for discussion since year 7 (age 11). They have worked hard, revised over Christmas for their mocks, completed practicals and now in the final period when they bring it all together for the final sprint, the exam bubble has been burst. Where is the satisfaction in not being able to cross the finish line you have been focussed on for so many years?

Sadness – when something important is taken away you experience sadness, an emotion that helps you identify what you value. Whilst exams are stressful and not always enjoyable, they are a stress shared by all your peers and enable you to share highs and lows, discuss ideas and collaborate so they can be a great opportunity to bond before, during and after the exam period.

Happiness – for some, the news of not having to take exams that they feel unprepared for, or have no interest in, is a source for joy and happiness. The perceived availability of time can now be focussed on more engaging or interesting pursuits that they enjoy. Also, for some, if the proposed method of assessment is coursework this may enable them to get higher grades than an exam if they feel they are more suited to this method.

Fear – this could be linked to many things, and in this case largely ‘Fear of the Unknown’. How will they assess? Will I get the grades I deserve? What should I be doing now? Will I be able to move onto the next stage? Will this have an impact on future career choices?

So with all these emotions at play, and there will be far more than those above, there will a diverse range of reactions to last night’s news, and some of the behaviours may seem inappropriate. Don’t judge the behaviour, understand it’s source.

Emotions drive behaviours and our instant reactions are often not the most effective responses for achieving what we want. Furthermore, for young people, whose brains have not yet fully formed, the ability to regulate their emotions and understand the consequence of their actions is still developing.

So how can you support your child in this challenging period?

Here are my top 5 tips:

  1. Allow them to vent their emotions without judgement
  2. Empathise with them Don’t say sentences like “At least you haven’t got to do exams” This approach has good intent, but doesn’t acknowledge their viewpoint. Even if you don’t agree with their viewpoint allow them to have their say and respond with phrases like “That’s interesting, I see your point”
  3. Encourage them to sit with their emotions and process them; don’t tell them not to be angry or sad etc as this will encourage them to suppress the emotion which is not a good long term strategy for anyone
  4. Explore ideas When the emotions have calmed, start helping them explore alternative ways to look at the situation and ideas for working through the next few months. As much as possible avoid telling and practise coaching – if something is their idea they will be far more motivated to do it and feel positive
  5. Create a plan When we are feeling overwhelmed one of the best ways of calming this emotion is to create an action plan. What do they want to achieve? Where are they now? What options do they have? What are they going to commit to do and when? What support do they need?

So whatever they do in the next few days, be kind, be understanding and be compassionate – at face value their behaviours may appear excessive, aggressive or even understated. Understand what is driving these behaviours and help them to work on the best actions that will be give them the best possible outcomes in the current situation.