Getting your teenagers through their exams!

From a Dad of twins who survived last year! by Lee Jackson

I’m the author of a few books. Three of them have been about teenagers, two about how to help them do well and pass exams in schools. I’ve helped teenage students for years, as a youth worker and for the last eight years as a motivational speaker working in schools up and down the UK. What made the timing of writing my book so perfect and ironic, is that I wrote it as my 16 year old identical twin girls were in the middle of their final GCSE exams! Yup, no more theories for me, no more let me speak from my ivory tower ‘professional experience’. This was real. Right now, last year i was the Dad of GCSE taking twins. A Dad who is supposed to be an “expert” in motivating teenagers for success! No more dress rehearsals. I’m going to find out if “my stuff” actually works for my teens! Gulp.

I’ve known and worked with CVM for many years now and thought I’d just share a few tips for you guys at this key time, with exams only weeks away, and the pressure on teenagers at an all time high, its time to share the good stuff that gets us all through…

5 Top Tips for Dads with teens revising or taking exams…

1. Be a ‘coach’ not just a ‘manager’

I really believe in changing our view of parenting into becoming our child’s ‘coach’ not just their ‘manager’. People who manage tend to manage ‘stuff’ not people and, like me, you’ve probably been on the wrong end of a bad manager at some point in your working life. They can be negative, jobsworth and not much fun to be around but a coach is a different thing altogether.

Coaching our teens gets the best out of them. We become an encourager not just a nagging voice. In the world of sport coaches are everywhere, they help the teams and athletes be the best they’re capable of being. A good coach will of course have to tell you off when you’re not doing so well but really their job is to encourage and to keep you on track so you can do more than you think you are capable of doing.

My friend Matt is a top-flight basketball coach I’ve seen him win games and lose games but what I see most in him is the ability to steer, adjust and encourage his players to get through, overcome, and even enjoy the tough games that they have to play. Even when players are taken off the court they’re not shouted at but given a reassuring hi-five. They don’t get a lecture because in 10 minutes time they may have to go on again. I think that parenting is always about choosing the right battle at the right time, because there are many battles and we can’t fight them all. Exam time particularly is the key time to let some things slide and to focus on what’s important – getting them through their exams in the right frame of mind with full support from us and our families. Exams are a just a season they don’t last forever (thankfully!) and they just require focus from everyone.

Coaching phrases to use when talking to your teen:
“How do you feel today?”
“How do you feel your revision is going?”
“What do you need from me at the moment?”
“You’ll be fine, you’ll make it, we’ve just got to get through this time together.”
“It won’t be long now, just get your head down for a bit and keep on going – you’ll make it.”
“Remember afterwards you’ll enjoy maybe one of the longest holidays in your life!”

2. The big fear
As I study people, the ‘self-help’ industry and motivation there are two things that come up time and time again. Self esteem and the fear of failure. Self esteem is the lens we look through as we see the world and our relationships and that often can be affected by the fear of failure. We all suffer from it in one sense or another. Can you remember a time or event where the fear of failure has taken over? I teach presentation skills a lot and it’s often the biggest fear in that context, and it can last for a lifetime. Your child maybe suffering from it too. If they are reluctant to start revising or to work hard, it’s often, but not always, rooted in the fear of failure. When I’m working in a challenging school I see this a lot. The students can almost persuade themselves that if they do no work at all then when they fail it’ll be somehow easier on them. But if they really put the effort in and then still ‘don’t make the grade’ it’ll be a disaster for them. So they figure out that not trying is less embarrassing. It’s scary being a 15/16 year old! We can help our teens with this by letting them know that as Zig Ziglar once said “Failure is an event not a person.” I fail, you’ve failed, we all have. In fact I spoke at an event last year all about failure. I even collect stories of people who’ve failed, but most of those stories finish with the time they picked themselves back up again. Failure is part of life. It’s a learning point for our children’s future. We all may fail, but we need to learn to have the grit to get back up again. GCSEs can teach them that. If they give them their best shot, they often get better results than they thought they would. That’s because working hard is a life changer.

3. Work hard pays off
They’ve been told it a thousand times by teachers and by you – that’s because it’s true – hard work (esp. smart work) works! It gets us from where we are to where we want to be and is much more reliable than a lottery or an X-Factor audition! Controversial American author Larry Winget has written a book called “It’s called work for a reason” and while I often cringe at his blunt, brash style he has a point. If we are lucky enough to have a job that we enjoy then that’s amazing. I love my job, but that still doesn’t mean it’s easy. Sitting here at my computer writing this doesn’t magically happen, I’ve had to lock myself way and get it done. I love communicating with good people like yourself but I don’t enjoy being stuck on a computer typing when I could be out in the sunshine. But today I am. It’s called work for a reason. The trick with teens though is to tell them this without sounding like a song on repeat (we used say ‘like a broken record!’). Show them how hard work has worked for you and encourage them to keep on going like you’ve had to learn yourself. GCSEs or A-levels is a season of hard work, it doesn’t last forever, and as one headteacher said to me the other day “Lee, at the end of the day I get 13 weeks of holiday a year, I try not to forget that.” A school year is about 37 weeks, so encourage them to work when they have to and enjoy the breaks when they come.

4. The ultimate revision technique…
So, what overall revision technique is proven to work when getting ready for gcse exams? In my Collins study skills book I talk about the gift of time. We all have it, we can all use it well if we choose. No matter who we are in life: ‘important’ ‘vip’ ‘famous’ ‘rich’ or just ‘normal’, we all have the same amount of time in the day (86,400 seconds to be precise). One of the keys to good revision and study skills is to use time well and to start early. It’s proven to work. In fact in 2013 Prof John Dunlovsky the co- author of the snappily titled “Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology report”(!) mentions ‘distributed practice’ as the best technique,(to you and me that’s starting early and revising regularly). He says it is the “most powerful” of all the strategies. Simple and effective.

5. Good revision – in a nutshell for your busy teenagers…
• Find out when the exam is
• Find out what you have to revise for it
• Make a quick revision plan (don’t spend more than 30 mins doing this!)
• Start revising, use a timer if you need to to get going …
• Start early, don’t just cram the night before, spread out the subjects
• Read your books/notes, then make your own revision cards/post-its/mind-maps
• Take breaks and reward yourself
• Test yourself or get others to test you
• Do past papers in timed exam conditions
• Ask for help / feedback from teachers
• Switch off your phone so you can focus – you can do it!!
• Prioritise the key topics as the exam moves closer
• Prepare your brain and body the night before an exam with good food and a good night’s rest, then glance over your notes before the exam in the morning
• Take the exam
• Reward yourself knowing you’ve given it your best shot
• Enjoy the results you get
• Smile smugly and enjoy your long sunny holiday 🙂

This is an excerpt from Lee’s short, readable and down-to-earth book available in paperback and Kindle now.

About the writer of this blog
Lee Jackson has written many books for blokes, adults and teenagers including “How to Enjoy And Succeed at School and College” and is one of the most experienced motivational school speakers in the UK. He has worked in schools for over 23 years and works in every type of UK school and college.
His website is
His twitter account is @leejackson