Breaking the Exam Pressure Trap – The ‘Screw Up Cascade’ Technique for Parents
Having worked with a number of high performing business leaders over a long period, we know they also want the best for their children and to help them become ‘high achievers’. They tell us how the methodologies we gave them for performing under pressure at work have been as useful within the home, especially when helping help their children cope and excel when under pressure. With exams on our doorstep, we thought it might be useful to share a few tips to help you break that exam pressure trap that so many kids seem to be facing these days.
This blog is for all those parents out there wanting to help their kids – do well, cope and not feel too stressed – but who are not sure if they’re doing it well. The first thing to say is that what we’re doing here is applying our ‘performance under pressure’ methods that help elite sportspeople, business leaders and educators learn to excel under pressure. We know this works with children too and in fact they often grasp the principles a lot quicker than the adults we work with. Whilst we’re by no means positioning ourselves as experts in childhood education we do believe there are a few practical tips for dealing with pressure that are worth trying.
In our view, whether pressure is perceived as good or bad, dealing with it is a skill. Therefore it can be practiced and learned. Like any skill, the components of it need to be described well. And though there are several elements to work on over time the prime thing, he most important thing is to recognize that it starts with where you place your attention. For adults and children alike we show this prime issue with a simple dichotomy - having a ‘blue head’ (focusing in useful things) – or having a ‘red head’ (focusing on things you can’t control). Being ‘off task’.
Having such a simple explanation and picture of what happens to the head when you are off task (red) or on task (blue) really helps. Under pressure being aware of where your attention is and moving from “red to blue” is the key.
So how can parents help influence the red head / blue head movement? When it comes to children and exams, most parents want to take control and find the solution for the children eg get them focused. But in our experience, and this is our first tip, what most children want when they are in the red is empathy and understanding of their feeling of stress. Once you explain that the way they are feeling is quite normal and in fact to be expected, there is usually an immediate reduction in any anxiety. It’s a simple message - try to be there as any good parent wants to be – to listen and help – and connect to their feelings; recognise their worries and then help work out a process to manage it in the most practical ways, as follows. This is a useful place to put your attention as a “blue headed” parent. It’s hard though it helps to have some specific things to actually put attention on.
And this is the second tip. It helps to have a couple of useful strategies to help recognize the real issues and manage them. One of the tools we use for this is to take the ‘Screw Up Cascade’ approach with them – make a list of all the things that they could really mess up and come up with a mitigating strategy for the top three. This is really common sense but helps you get to the heart of the issue very quickly by asking them some simple questions:
- What are the worst things that could happen?
- Why might these happen?
- Is there anything you can do to avoid these happening?
You’ll find your children know exactly what they should be doing – revising regularly, eating well, going to bed on time, etc. However, the fear and pressure of failure is all they can think about – rather than concentrating on what they can control which will help such as revising regularly, eating well etc etc. Going through this process helps them take responsibility and find the solution, recognising how they can take ownership in a positive but practical manner by creating a plan of action. The student can also define how – if they need support – the parent can get involved to help.
Our third tip is to focus on what your job should be in this situation – being the best parent you can be by creating a supportive learning environment in which your children can get on task and concentrate; one that makes it easy and rewarding to study. Creating routines and explaining the importance around the quality of these rituals is very important to helping children keep their attention on what they should be doing.
Gazing’s tool to help people get from a Red Head to a Blue Head is ‘The Control Circle’. At its most basic, by understanding two key circles - the things that you can control and those that you can’t, you then focus your attention and efforts firmly on those you can control – your Control Circle – with a plan of action. The more you are aware of these circles, the more you can focus on the areas you can control or have influence around, the more you can help take control of the pressured situations you find yourself in.
It’s exactly the same for children. If they understand the triggers around pressure that can make them feel out of control – a blue head – they can switch from red to blue. When training people to equip them to deal with and perform under pressure, we use memorable one-page maps to help visualise these techniques and keep them on track on a daily basis. This approach works well with children to picture it simply in their heads.
We believe strongly that awareness is key – once children start to recognise the pressure triggers and know what to do by falling back into learned exam rituals – whether it’s creating revision rituations of 30 minutes revision three times a day followed by a break to avoid the stress of cramming, or 9pm bedtime rule in exam month to avoid inevitable tiredness – they’ll start to revert to these learned behaviours with familiarity and comfort – and hopefully reduce the stress around exams in a practical way.
If any of these tips help your children start to cope better with exams, let us know and we can provide a few more.
Bede Brosnaham, Product Director, Gazing Performance Systems