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Coping with Exam Stress and Anxiety…

With entrance exams and mocks coming up in the New Year, in addition to academic help, we can offer strategies for parents and pupils to prepare emotionally and practically for exams.

Two main things for a parent to think about when it comes to their child’s exams: How to help your child revise – both in terms of being ready and also the nitty-gritty of revision techniques – and how to support your child with the stress and anxiety of revision!


Help with revision

The exam system has changed greatly over the past few years, and is continuing to change.  Some parents may feel it best to just let the ‘experts’ at their child’s school get on with it; we believe parent involvement can make an enormous difference, but parents don’t need to be an expert in any subject to make a real difference.

The hardest demand on children is understanding the long-term importance of doing the best they can, and learning to sometimes shelve short-term fun in the interest of long-term benefits (not easy for an adult, let alone a child!) Establish a feel good factor about the learning – understand that all learning is hard and requires sacrifice and deferred gratification. They need to consider “what’s in it for me?” For 11+ it’s to do with visualising the end goal of going to a particular school, for older children it is going to university and getting a good job.

Practical ways to help include:
  • Create a work area where the student will be comfortable and where they will not be interrupted.
  • Agree if music or TV will help or hinder them.
  • Agree to a regular “check-in” where you are “allowed” to discuss where the student is in relation to each subject’s deadline.
  • It’s best to learn first time around, as this is a key to successful revision and exam results.
  • Encourage your child to keep a file for each subject with dividers for each new section and to file information, notes and handouts immediately or at the end of each day.
  • Start revision early and make a realistic timetable they will stick to.
  • Get good revision books/CD-ROM, or aids for each subject.
  • Match revision notes to likely exam questions.
  • Get hold of old papers from the school/tutor/internet.
  • Take a break if becoming frustrated, angry or overwhelmed.
  • Students need to know themselves– night owl or morning lark – but they should never revise all night before an exam; sleep is very important.
  • Encourage and praise your child, show an interest by talking to them about what they are learning and keep a note of key dates and deadlines so ensure they support them before the ‘panic stage.’


Learning tips

It really helps to structure each revision session, with an aim for what will be achieved in it and testing this at the end.

“Doing something” with the information students are trying to learn and remember.  This is essential to allow your brain to learn, make connections and remember.  Different people find different activities useful, and you need to find out how you revise best.

Effective ideas include:
  • Drawing ‘spider maps’ on large pieces of paper – to show how different parts of a subject hang together.
  • Using pictures and big flip-chart sheets and colour to make posters with key points and display these on the walls or where you will see them regularly.
  • Putting revision aids up around the house – especially any ‘rote learning’ e.g. chemical formulae, French verbs etc.

Find out what helps your child to remember things.


Possible techniques include:
  • Acronyms (Mrs Nerg)
  • Picture stories
  • Mnemonics (Big elephants can always understand small elephants)
  • Review
  • Visualisation
  • Word association
  • Mind maps


The least effective method of learning is just reading the information through, over and over again; only marginally less effective is copying it out. As both of these methods are often the main technique employed by most learners, it is a wonder that anything is learnt at all.


Help with managing stress during revision

A little bit of stress can be a good thing as it motivates us to knuckle down and work hard. But exams can make stress levels get out of hand, which can stop us from performing our best. So it’s important to address it and get it back under control.

Everyone under stress needs to get those feelings out of their system, so turning to family members, school tutors, counsellors and buddies will help.

If your child is feeling under stress during revision, they should take a break: go for a walk or play some sport or take an hour to watch some television – do something to take their mind off the stress. In any case, they should take short 5-10 minute breaks in every few hours of revision.

It’s vital to eat well, with fresh fruit and vegetables and proper breakfasts. Sleep is the other essential. Students need to wind down before bed and not revise under the duvet – bed should be a sanctuary, not a desk.

Parents can also help by trying not to add to the stress levels in the house by ‘rising to the bait’ when your child pushes the limits.  Pick your battles carefully. Try to keep routines the same and not introduce any instability unless absolutely necessary. Before the exam remind them that you love and value them whatever happens. After the exam, ask how it went but don’t insist on a long post-mortem. Cook favourite meals and reduce visitors or work going on in the house to a minimum.


Coping with stress on exam days

On the day of an exam, students should allow time for the brain to wake up; it helps to have a shower and eat a good breakfast. They need to ensure they know their exam timetable: what exam on what day in what room, and have plenty of time to get there early.

Exam tactics are important in reducing stress and achieving success. These examples may help: Always spend five minutes at the beginning of the exam writing down any key formulae, facts or quotes so they aren’t forgotten. Make, and keep to, a time-scale for each question depending on the number of marks awarded. In exam papers where there are several questions to answer, students should work on those that they are most confident about first, then tackle the harder ones. Everyone should allow a few minutes at the end of the exam to check through the work and make any changes.

Panic is often triggered by hyperventilating (quick, shallow breaths). So if students feels themselves panicking during the exam, they need to know to sit back for a moment and control their breathing. Breathe deeply in and out through the nose, counting to five each way. If they’re feeling overwhelmed by anxiety, they could use forms of distraction, such as counting the number of desks in the row, or singing a favourite song in their head.

Positive self-talk really helps everyone. Replacing those negative, panicky messages as they start developing:  ‘I can’t do this’, ‘help’, I’m going to fail’ with the positive messages: ‘relax’, ‘breathe deeply’, ‘just concentrate’, ‘you’re really good at this’, ‘slow down and it’s going to be OK’, ‘this can’t hurt me, I’m doing really well’, ‘well done, me’.


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