A student sits at a desk on their laptop in their boarding room.

If I could go back in time and give my 17-year-old self some pieces of advice, there would be a long list, most of which, sensibly, is not divulged here. Somewhere in that list, though, would be the opportunity to pass on some of the learning strategies that took me years to acquire, more through trial and error than as a result of direct instruction from my teachers.

Thankfully, our Senior School students have had opportunities to learn and hone those strategies more proactively. This is a result of my colleagues at SMUS actively embedding learning and study strategies in their day-to-day instruction, and the range of learning strategies seminars offered by the Learning Resource team.

While we offer a wide range of seminars to students, we also want to help parents and houseparents support their children. With our Senior School students now preparing for some of the most demanding tests of their academic careers, I wanted to offer you some tips to support your child's preparation for Advanced Placement (AP) exams. After all, one could rightly make the point that when someone in the house is in “exam mode,” it can feel like the whole household is as well.

While these suggestions are not exclusive to AP exams, it is worth acknowledging that our older children often require a different approach to assistance than that which we provide to our younger children. As students develop these learning skills and further independence, we must shift in our own roles as parents to support their autonomy – moving from “head coach” to “bench coach”. Start by acknowledging to your child these exams are approaching, and ask how you might support them. This gives a student agency and creates an opportunity for you to validate their feelings. After all, we have been there ourselves.

Here are 8 ways parents can support their child in the lead-up to AP exams:

Normalize nerves

As a high school student, the pressure I felt at exam time exhibited itself in the form of being on edge and ‘jumpy’. (Incidentally, when trying to find a synonym for “jumpy,” my Google search turned up the expression “like a cat on hot bricks” which seems to be a fairly good substitute.) Exam pressure, though, can show up in a variety of ways, including procrastinating, feeling overwhelmed, being irritable, and having difficulty sleeping or eating. It is normal to feel nervous or stressed about an exam. Often nerves mean that one cares deeply about the outcome (or one’s parents do). Nerves also serve as a catalyst to take action, when kept in check. You might validate your child’s feelings and then remind them that a mark on an exam will not define them. I like to tell my students that their future self will likely not even remember the majority of their exam marks with any specificity. Rarely does an exam mark change one’s path; it is the skills one hones in preparation that have the lasting impact.

If you have concerns about your child, you can always encourage them to connect with a school counsellor. Our counsellors can provide strategies for managing exam anxiety and insights into how stress can impact our bodies and minds. For instance, nerves can come in waves, so learning breathing exercises and mindfulness strategies can benefit your child while they study and even during the exam. Our Director of Personal Counselling, Carole McMillan, says one of the most effective breathing techniques is box breathing. The technique is a quick way to lower heart rate, focus the mind and relax the parasympathetic nervous system.

Create a long-term schedule

The busier we get, the harder it becomes to juggle everything without mapping out our time. Encourage your child to write all their commitments in one document or planner, including those that are academic, extracurricular and family/social. The goal is to see the big picture in one place. Use this as a discussion point for how you might support your child to maintain as much of a balance as possible. It might also be helpful to buy a four-month laminated calendar for this; they are sold at almost every university campus store (and could serve also as an early grad gift).

Respect their study style

As teachers and parents, we might fall into the trap of teaching others how to prepare for exams based on how we studied at their age. Studying techniques are not a “one size fits all” model and students use very different tools to review than was likely part of most of our experience. (I daren’t say to my children or students that my first computer was a Commodore 64 on which I perfected my Pong skills.) There were no electronic study tools; paper and pencil and index cards made up my study toolbox. Find an opening to discuss with your child what they find works for them. When are they ‘in the zone’? Do they like to study alone? In groups? 

Where you can play a role, too, is offering to have your child teach you what they have learned. This is one of the most effective ways to consolidate review: teach others what you know. It is also key to avoiding “illusions of competence” – the sense we know something better than we actually do. Let your child study in ways and at times of the day they feel is best for their learning. It’s akin to running: don’t do anything differently on race day that you haven’t practiced in training.

Reduce distractions

Tied to respecting their study style, you can help ensure that your child is set up for success by reducing possible distractions. Distractions can be internal (like hunger) or external (environmental factors that may take away their focus, including a cluttered workspace, noisy siblings, and, of course, their phone). Far be it from me to provide much advice on the latter, as according to my three boys, my husband and I are the only parents “in the world” who significantly limit phone use and we have it “all wrong.” But research shows that a key approach for effective review is to have students and their phones in different rooms. Studying is most effective and efficient when distractions are minimized. Best of luck.

“What supplies do you need?”

Asking your child this direct question as it relates to both studying and exam day is another way you can support them. For many students, a new supply of highlighters, index cards, erasable pens, pre-sharpened pencils and other-supplies-you-no-doubt-already-have-in-various-drawers-but-will-purchase-anyway serves as a motivation to start review.

There are certain supplies required to bring to an AP exam, such as No. 2 pencils, pens with black or blue ink, and an approved calculator. Help your child by being proactive in ensuring study and exam materials are readily available and organized in advance.

Help with sleep and eating habits

We know a good night’s sleep and good food help students focus, learn and retain information, in addition to the effect on mood, alertness and energy levels. I often tell students that a sleep-deprived brain is inefficient: "Trying to recall information on a sleep-deprived brain is like me sending you to the grocery store to buy bread, but only allowing you to shop in the dairy aisle. You’re not going to find it." Help your child maintain good and consistent sleep habits. And yes, this likely should involve a conversation about technology use close to bedtime (it should be avoided in case there was doubt).

On the food front, my colleagues have found success delivering a snack to their child’s study space if they haven’t surfaced for a while or enticing them to come to the kitchen or common room for a treat. Clearly they are not like me, the parent of a teenage boy who would be most happy to study as close to the fridge as possible. Regardless, food can serve as a catalyst for a study break and a chance to connect.

Encourage study breaks

Ideally students should be studying in short chunks of time, followed by a break. A good rule of thumb is “age times two” for that focus time, to be followed by a short (5-10 minute) break which is physical (not sedentary). Repeat. Preferably that break is not one involving technology, but fresh air or the aforementioned kitchen or common room. It also gives parents a chance to check in and help or offer encouragement.

Celebrate Progress

While our tendency as teachers and parents is often to reward the student’s effort post-exam, I would suggest acknowledging the smaller, process-oriented steps involved in studying. Plan to do something with your child during a longer study break or at the end of that evening’s review. Involve them in choosing what that is, knowing that it’s more about the opportunity to connect than what they are choosing to connect over. Perhaps it is not even you with whom they wish to connect – that’s fine, too. If you can, engage them again in conversation as to how you can help or what they feel is needed as a next step. Perhaps you are not needed at all, but the standing offer is important. Keep in mind that there is great value, both in the short- and long-term, in focusing on the process rather than just the outcome.

As your child navigates their exams, I hope these tips will help you to support them through AP season, allowing them to go into their exams feeling more calm, confident and well-prepared. As for the rest of the list of advice to my 17-year-old self, that is an entirely different article.