Preparing for exam season: 10 practical insights from psychology to help teens get through


Exam season is fast approaching for many senior students in New Zealand and Australia. At the best of times, adolescents may struggle with ambition and drive, let alone after two-and-a-half years of COVID-induced disruption and uncertainty.

But parents can still nurture their teens’ motivation to do what they need to do.

Behind the scenes, the adolescent period is one of huge developmental change, and not only physically. Teens are developing their sense of identity and refining their own values. Their autonomy and individuation is emerging while they still remain somewhat dependent on the family system.

Parents may expect their young people to be intrinsically motivated when it comes to exams. The importance of studying is obvious to many adults. But even the most diligent among us can easily identify behaviours we know we should be doing, but aren’t.

Clearly, knowing that something is important may not be enough to generate the desired behaviour.

Understanding human behaviour

According to clinical psychologist Susan Michie and her colleagues at University College London, three factors interact to produce any human behaviour, whether it’s studying or surfing: capability, opportunity and motivation.

Michie’s team developed the “COM-B” model, which forms the basis for behavioural interventions relating to everything from hand washing to our own efforts to support clinicians to use evidence-based treatments.

Capability (both physical and psychological), opportunity (physical and social) and motivation come together to influence behaviour in an interactive way.

For example, if a young person is very capable (or believes themselves to be very capable) at solving maths equations, those around them are supportive or encouraging (social opportunity), and they have the practical resources they need (physical opportunity), they’re likely to want to do maths homework (be motivated).

Conversely, imagine a young person who starts the school term really motivated to study for two hours online every night, but only has access to the laptop at school (limited physical opportunity), still has fatigue after an illness (limited physical capability), and is surrounded by friends who have other priorities (low social opportunity). Herculean motivation may be required in this situation.

How parents can support their teen to study

Put simply, parents should “zoom out”. Motivation can’t be produced magically out of thin air, and attempts to force it can have the opposite effect. But parents can support and encourage their young person’s capability and opportunity to study.

1. Motivation fluctuates

Motivation is not something that is simply present or absent. It fluctuates from hour to hour, day to day. So rather than “how can I make him be motivated today?”, a more useful question is “how can I create an environment where he’ll be a bit more motivated than he was last night?”

2. Good foundations

Remember the basics, for teens and parents alike – sleep, exercise and balanced nutrition. If these are in place, it’ll help both physical and psychological capability.

3. Balanced thinking promotes capability

A sense of mastery or capability is important. Stressed teens can fall into black and white thinking traps. “I’m useless at maths” fuels feeling overwhelmed and a sense of futility.

Instinctively, it’s tempting to reply with “no you’re not, you’re amazing!” But that’ll likely bounce right off. Instead, try to encourage your teen’s balanced thinking. “Stats is hard, but I’m okay at algebra and geometry”.

4. Focusing on what teens can control

Praise effort over achievement. Persisting with an hour a day of English revision for six weeks deserves as much acknowledgement as winning the English prize (and unlike the prize, it is within your teen’s control).

5. Reinforcing their worth, no matter what

Likewise, be sure to separate your teen’s attributes (who they are) from their behaviour (what they do). They’re not a “lazy” person, but there are particular behaviours they may need to do more (or do less).

6. Behaviour as communication

If young people are irritable or snappy, try to hold in mind that this anger or irritation is likely to be secondary to other emotions, like anxiety, hopelessness or overwhelm. It’s probably not about you.

7. Worry might have a purpose

Lots of anxiety may be incapacitating, but some anxiety in this season makes sense, and a little bit can actually enhance preparation and performance. Paradoxically, perfectionism isn’t always useful.

Motivation to study can fluctuate. Getty Images

8. Validate what you can

Try to validate the emotion, even if the behaviour can’t be justified. Perhaps reflect that it makes perfect sense that things feel overwhelming, many people would feel that way in that situation, and then pause.

It’s tempting to rush to solve the problem, or rapidly fire questions. But often young people just need to be given permission to feel the feeling, and they can sometimes figure out the solution themselves.

9. Collaborating to solve problems

Similarly, try to avoid doing “to” (or “for”), instead aiming to do “with”. Collaborating to solve problems (if they want input) may develop or enhance future independent problem-solving abilities. It also communicates your belief in their capability to do so.

10. Acknowledge to create habits

Parents might consider using targeted, short-term incentives (we don’t see these as bribes, but recognition of hard work or effort) to create new habits or reinforce emerging behaviours.

Finally, try to hold a longer-term view. One exam, one assessment, won’t make or break things. Families and cultures may hold a range of values around what a successful life looks like, but it usually involves more than just exam success.

Good health, connection with others, and meaning or purpose are fundamental to success in life. Try to keep this in mind over the next few months, even if the going gets tough.

Author Bios: Melanie Woodfield is a Clinical Psychologist, Te Whatu Ora | HRC Clinical Research Training Fellow, University of Auckland and Jin Russell is a Community and Developmental Paediatrician both at the University of Auckland