Ben Bernstein has been training students to succeed for over 40 years. The most important thing he has learned is that a person’s performance is directly affected by his or her stress level. “If stress is too high or too low your kid’s performance will suffer,” says Dr. Bernstein. “When they learn how to get into the zone, they perform at their best. Every winning Olympic athlete knows how to do this.”
In his new book Test Success! How to Be Calm Confident and Focused on Any Test, he shares his best about how to get into the zone and do well in school and on tests.
“Parents can have a tremendous impact on how a child handles the stresses of school,” he says. “But it is the child who is sitting in the classroom and taking the test.”
Dr. Bernstein’s book identifies nine key tools for school success. He uses a balanced mind-body-spirit approach that boils down to being calm, having confidence, and maintaining focus.
“I’ve trained students to raise their SAT scores by 100 points by simply learning to regularize their breathing through the course of the test. I’ve seen the utter joy of a rower when she finally learned how to focus her energy throughout the entire race. I was particularly moved when I watched the parents of a student I was coaching learn to build their son’s self-esteem instead of tear it down, by relaxing their completely unrealistic expectations of him.”
Here are some of his invaluable suggestions on how parents can help children deal with the four primary causes of poor scores:
Trouble with the content.
Understanding the material is the first and the most key issue. Ask the following questions:
- “Is there something in the material you specifically don’t understand?”
- “Do you feel like this material is just too difficult for you?
- “What doesn’t make sense to you?”
- “Are you having trouble memorizing?”
- “Are you just bored with this material?” (Caution: when a child says something is “ boring” what they might mean is that they don’t understand it or like it.)
You, the parent, can ask the teacher to shed light on the situation. Sometimes a child can’t pinpoint her difficulties and, if she’s too embarrassed, shy or resistant to talk with the teacher, she may need you to do so on her behalf. The teacher is a good resource because he may be more familiar than you are with your child’s learning style, so ask for his observations. Also, see if he can explain the material to you. Do the explanations seem clear? In other words, is the teacher part of the problem? Can the teacher show you a way to help your child?
Consider arranging for a tutor to work with your child. A tutor may be helpful to your child by providing close personal attention. Tutorial resources are increasingly available and don’t have to be costly. There are many possibilities that are free or very inexpensive: peer tutors (fellow students) in the school, after school programs that include a homework component, and college students looking for extra income. You can always go online or advertise for a tutor or see who is advertising their services.
Jitters and tension make it hard for anyone to concentrate. A bad case of nerves can seriously undermine a student’s test performance because it robs them of their concentration.
Is your child getting enough regular physical exercise? Bike riding, working out at the gym, running and swimming are all tension-releasing activities that give her the opportunity to let off steam and “restart” her system. Watching TV, texting, talking on the cell phone and playing video games are not aerobic. All too often kids try to study after long hours of these activities and their energy is already zapped.
Is your child getting enough sleep? Is he going to bed too late? Does he have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning and does he look tired? Does he appear tired at other times of the day, like after school? Children need a lot more sleep than adults do, at least nine to ten hours a night and anything less can severely hamper their school performance because their tired minds aren’t paying attention. Recent research shows that inadequate sleep can cause problems that look like attention deficit.
Review your child’s diet. A daily intake high in carbs, sugars and caffeinated drinks, is, unfortunately, all too common in our culture. While these foods and “energy drinks” appear to keep the engine stoked, they are actually wearing your child down. A balanced diet keeps glucose levels from going on a rollercoaster and has a positive effect on metabolism, energy levels and brain function.
Learn to calm down yourself. As a parent, it is very easy to pick up on what your child feels and start feeling the same way yourself. (Also, of course, you have your own adult problems to cope with.) If your child is anxious, or sad, or angry you may quickly begin feeling the same thing even if you were feeling quite calm just moments before. In psychology we call this an “induced reaction”—you are induced into your child’s state. This is a very human response, especially with people who are close with one another like parent and child. You increase your chances of reducing your child’s stress if you learn how to keep yourself calm no matter what is going on with them.
Issues of Self Doubt
Are you the right person to be your child’s confidant? As you will see, she has to be able to confide her lack of self-confidence to someone. You might think of yourself as her best friend but you may not be the person-of-choice for her as a confidant. Sometimes kids don’t want to look insufficient in front of their parents (or just about anybody). You have to give up the idea that your child should confide in you. Think of someone else she can talk with: a teacher she respects; an advisor or counselor at school she trusts; a clergy member, one of her close friends who is a responsible individual. Encourage her to share her deepest thoughts with that person. Make supportive, positive, but accurate statements to your child. “You work hard.” “You’ve taken on big challenges before and succeeded.” “You can do it.” “I believe in you.” “I know you’ve got what it takes.”
Difficulty staying on task.
If your child has difficulty becoming motivated, find out what is getting in his way. Is it an overall sense of helplessness that even if he tries, he won’t get anywhere? Has “achievement” into a negative word?
Ask the following questions:
Whose goal is it that your child succeeds? Of course you want her to do well, but if she doesn’t have that goal herself, you are going to be in an uphill battle that you might never win. Talk with your child about this. A straightforward discussion about her goals can go a long way toward clarifying why she needs to work harder.
In what ways does your child becomes distracted? Does she stay on the phone, text, clock onto the web, email, play video games, watch TV, eat — all instead of doing her homework? Can you help her set realistic working periods with breaks for “treats” and distractions? Consider getting a timer (see page 98) as a tool so she can focus better and more consistently.
How focused are you? If you have clear goals and minimize distraction, you can be a good role model for your child. She can see the effects for herself.
Remember: cultivating good work habits is ultimately something children should learn to do for themselves because they see the positive results and feel good about having accomplished a goal. Though you may have to encourage and mentor them through this process, they are doing the work so that they can go on to lead a more fulfilling life.
Ben Bernstein, Ph.D., is a performance coach, a licensed psychologist, and a national speaker on the subject of stress and performance.
His model for test success is used in schools, universities, prisons and programs for underserved college-bound youth. An educator for the last forty years, Dr. Bernstein has taught at every level of the educational system.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, he began his teaching career in Bedford-Stuyvesant in 1969. A graduate of Bowdoin College, Dr. Bernstein received a master’s degree in music composition from Mills College and a doctorate from the University of Toronto.
Among his many accomplishments, he is a performance coach in the Young Musicians Program for inner-city teenagers at UC Berkeley; a recipient of major grants from the American and Canadian governments; the first director of improvisation at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute in Utah; the founder of the Singer’s Gym, a professional workshop for opera singers in the Bay Area; and the creator and producer of original musicals and films with psychiatric patients in the United States and Australia.