AN EXAM STRESS SURVIVAL GUIDE
With SATs, GCSEs and A Level exams, and the prospect of 11+ exams after the long holidays, summer can seem full of pressure and stress.
We all know that a little bit of stress can be motivating, but exams can make stress levels get out of hand, which can prevent a student’s performance in the exams themselves.
How can students – and their parents – get stress back under control and come out the other side with great academic results and their relationships intact?
MINIMISING REVISION STRESS
Planning and preparation are the key tools for minimising stress both during the exams and the revision period beforehand. Keeping communication channels open is also vitally important. People under stress need an outlet for it, including children facing exams. They need to feel they can talk freely to family members, school tutors and counsellors, and friends who are going through the same experience.
Parents need to ensure they don’t transfer their own worries about exam results to their children and apply too much added pressure during revision. It’s fine to expect your child to prepare well for the exams and to offer support, but don’t constantly hover over them and increase any tension they feel by adding your own anxiety to theirs. This is true for every exam from primary school SATs to school entrance exams and A Levels.
CREATING A CALM ENVIRONMENT
Help your child create a dedicated work area, whether they prefer to work in the family kitchen or in their own room. Some people prefer to study with background music in the room or their headphones, but you should discourage the use of a mobile phone for this unless it’s on airplane mode so that no distracting messages and notifications can pop up on the screen. The perceived need to respond to friends immediately and the fear of missing out can add an extra layer of stress onto a day of revision, so mobile use should be confined to break times.
Try not to disrupt the usual household routines, and ensure your child takes adequate breaks during revision. They should take short 5 to 10-minute breaks in every hour or two of revision, with occasional longer breaks to really take their mind off things: walking the dog, playing some sport, meeting a friend or just an hour of Netflix. It might also be worth investing in a subscription to a meditation and relaxation app such as Calm or Headspace, to help your child switch off completely and regain some composure.
It’s important that students also eat well, and parents can help by cooking their favourite meals, including fresh fruit and vegetables and plenty of protein. Sleep is the other essential. Students need to wind down properly before going to bed and not revise under the duvet, because their bed should be a sanctuary rather than a workspace.
During revision and exams, children can sometimes be resentful, bad-tempered and on a short fuse. Parents can help prevent an escalation in household stress levels by trying not to react and “rise to the bait” when children push the limits during this time. Pick your battles carefully and focus on encouraging good work and rest habits rather than tackling minor behavioural issues. Throughout this period and especially on the day of exams, you should remind your child that you love and value them whatever happens.
SURVIVING EXAM DAY STRESS – MAKING A GOOD START
A good night’s sleep is the best preparation for any test or exam, not staying up late to cram in some last-minute revision. Students need to rise early enough to have time to wake up properly and perhaps have a shower to invigorate them. They should certainly eat a good breakfast, before checking they have everything they need in their pencil case and setting off in plenty of time to avoid any worries about traffic or transport delays on the way to the exam.
Being organised is always a good defence against stress and exam anxiety. You should ensure that their child knows their exam timetable and precisely where they will sit each exam, so there is no doubt about when and where they will sit their tests or public exams. This is obviously more crucial to older students, who might be on study leave and not even at school every day by the time they sit GCSE or A level papers.
EXAM TACTICS TO REDUCE STRESS
Exam tactics are important in staying calm and being successful on the day.
Try offering these helpful examples of proven exam tactics to your child:
- Read through the paper to quickly identify which questions present your best options for maximum marks.
- Spend five minutes at the beginning of the exam noting down any key formulae, facts or quotes so you don’t forget them once you have started to answer the questions.
- Decide upon 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, always work on those that you are most confident about first, then tackle the harder ones.
- Always allow a few minutes at the end of an exam to check through your work and make any changes.
AVERTING PANIC DURING EXAMS
If students feel themselves panicking during an exam, they need to know how to sit back for a moment to control their breathing and stop hyperventilating. They can do this by breathing deeply in and out through their nose, counting to five each way. Parents can help by practicing this with their children from any age, to establish it as an instinctive response to feelings of panic. If they’re feeling overwhelmed by anxiety, children could use forms of distraction too, such as counting the number of desks in their row or singing a favourite song in their head.
Positive self-talk can also really help. Encourage your child to consciously replace any negative, panicky messages such as: “I can’t do this” or “Help! I’m going to fail!” with positive messages such as: “Relax”, “Breathe deeply”, “Just concentrate”, “You’re really good at this”, “Slow down” and “It’s going to be OK”. They might not appear to take this on board when you discuss this, but if you plant the idea of this approach it might help them enormously on exam day.
After the exam, it’s reasonable to ask how it went, but don’t insist on a long post-mortem. If your child wants to talk about the exam in detail, make sure you help them recognise the positives and don’t dwell on what might have gone wrong, especially if they have another exam to take soon afterwards. The whole cycle of preparation, support and calm needs to be repeated for every paper they take, whatever age they are, to keep those stress levels firmly under control.