How parents can help kids through the college test-prep frenzy

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While parents may remember little about standardized test hacks, they can play a big role in helping their kids feel supported and confident rather than criticized, pessimistic or scared.

Since 1993, I’ve been on the front lines of test prep wars, not only routinely taking the ACT and SAT at local schools to remind myself of what students experience, but also spending something like 50,000 hours as their tutor, helping them prepare for an alphabet of standardized tests. I’ve seen failures in communications that put parents and kids at cross purposes, when they should be allies.

Kids frequently feel like their parents have little understanding of, insufficient empathy for, and little practical advice to offer that actually helps. Meanwhile, parents can feel the frustration of trying to offer advice, high-level strategy and clearheaded instruction that is often disregarded.

While many can credibly argue the battle for test scores isn’t even worth engaging, I’ll leave that fight to others. I’d like to talk about how we talk about tests.

Effective test prep offers three components: content knowledge, test strategies and a healthy approach to motivation and anxiety. Content and strategies are (mostly) easy but can be utterly undone when motivation is disrupted or anxiety erupts.

Overarching everything needed for good test prep are cognitive and emotional flexibility, problem-solving and working memory, executive functions students need to navigate tests of any kind, especially “high-stakes” ones — and in this area, parents can have a huge impact .

It matters little what preparation was put into brains, if under pressure students “lose their minds.” The prefrontal cortex that houses executive function is, according to researcher Amy Arnsten, akin to “the Goldilocks of the brain:” It just needs the right balance of neurotransmitters to operate optimally.

What parents say matters. Motivation is a tricky thing, hard to foster and easy to extinguish. Even more so anxiety, which is easy to provoke but harder to allay. So even well-intentioned parents, eager to urge their kids to work hard, can easily send them off the rails instead. Language that is controlling or coercive undermines the intrinsic motivation that we hope kids have to work hard and inflames anxiety and avoidance.

Here, then, are some of the expressions I have seen loving and well-intentioned parents use, and some suggestions about what they can say instead.

“You’re so much smarter than this.” While intended to voice confidence in their impressive track record of academic performance, kids can hear “This is a test that measures intelligence” that has somehow “outed” them, adding pressure not only to do well for college admissions but also to prove they’ re “still smart,” undermining the very performance everyone’s so invested in.

What to say instead: “You’re really successful in school, so these scores kind of surprised us. We’re curious and would love to help explore what’s up.” I’ve had kids underperform from stress, sleep deprivation, the munchies, mid-test naps, mid-test flirting, you name it. Curiosity is a great message and keeps everyone on the same team.

“It’s ‘just’ your anxiety/learning issues/test-taking skills.” While I imagine parents intend “just” to soften whatever currently bedevils their kid, it can feel pretty invalidating.

What to say instead: “We wonder whether there is (anxiety/reading challenges/strategy) about how you are experiencing or approaching the test, a ‘missing piece’ that can be tackled to help you do even better.” Taking seriously a skills gap or the anxiety that tangles up many kids, but without being alarmist, helps.

“Why do you make so many stupid mistakes?” This may be my least-favorite phrase, because this is really an accusation. Also, labeling things as “stupid” risks driving the problem underground and conditions kids to hide mistakes rather than embrace them as opportunities to learn about their learning. Let me state clearly, there are no stupid mistakes. Mistakes come in two forms: either kids miss something they do not yet know how to do, in which case it isn’t a matter of stupidity but ignorance. Or, kids miss what they do know how to do, which presents a puzzle. Solving it provides an insight into a process, which can help with not just that problem but many.

Typically, “stupid mistakes” are due to a child’s attention being elsewhere. Was it an easy question, and they let their guard down as soon as they thought they solved it? Were they rushing? Were they distracted by people around them? Their own anxious thoughts? Parents need to be curious, not dismissive.

What to say instead: “If I’m looking at this right, it seems you missed a lot of questions that were easier than ones you got right. To me, the good news is those are ones you already know how to do. So, potential! Would it help to see why you got them wrong?” Use the language of a consultant, not the PSAT Parent Police.

“I don’t know how you could score so low. When I was your age…” Well, last time I checked you are not your child, and they are not you. Though possibly intended as confidence in “good test-taking genes,” it’s more likely they feel pressured, needing to do well to have approval that should be unconditional because, well, they’re your kid.

What to say instead: “I know these tests have changed a lot since I was your age. If you’re willing, I’d love to learn more about them and what you thought was easy and hard.” Open-mindedness lowers defenses and positions parents to help without forcing their judgment or experience on kids.

“It’s okay. No one in our family is a good test taker.” While I’m sure such a comment is intended to lower the pressure on your child and give them “an out,” it isn’t exactly a vote of confidence, and negative expectations can easily affect kids’ confidence.

What to say instead: “As a family, we know firsthand that these tests aren’t a very good measure of what people can do. While we’d love them to do well on these tests, we know it isn’t necessary.” Which is true. Just Google “test-optional,” of which I am a big fan.

“It’s not that big of a deal. Scores don’t really matter. Who cares if you bombed the PSAT?” Objectively, true. Subjectively, scores can carry a lot more weight in the minds of teens. While parents may try to soothe kids with the latest facts about college admissions, logic doesn’t calm hard emotions. Feeling understood does.

What to say instead: “I can understand why you’re upset. I would be too if I cared a lot about this test, tried really hard and felt like I bombed it.” In the end, sharing hard feelings brings us closer to our kids, which also creates opportunities to help.

“We don’t care how you do, as long as you do your best.” Although parents are trying to communicate caring and respect for the child, they’re still setting an impossible standard that invites a character judgment — and can make the kid feel guilty if they don’t give their full effort, creating pressure parents were trying to decrease. And, if we’re honest, most of us do not do our best in every situation.

What to say instead: “I love you, no matter how you do, or how hard you work” lowers pressure and stress and lets kids know their parents are on their side and have their back, making it easier to charge into battle, work hard, and know that , if they get licked, they have a safe base to retreat to, to regroup, and, if they want, to try again.

If kids decide to test, ideally they’ll prepare well and do well. The words in kids’ heads are often from their parents and make a real difference. Let’s make those words of confidence, approval and support, messages that will linger long after (and matter much more) than test scores.

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