EXAMS – BIG PRESSURE ON YOUNG SHOULDERS A guide to helping your child through the process

Image by Lacie Slezak on Unsplash

Children are wading through myriad exam pressures at the moment. For our youngest, many are contemplating which school their AQE and GL scores will take them after their transfer tests last autumn – and have until May 31 to wait it out, when those questions will finally be answered.

For our older children, many are selecting their GCSE subjects they’ll be examined in, while many others are going through A-level mock exams.

In light of all these pressures our young people are facing Action Mental Health is offering parents advice on how best to help them cope with exam-related stress.

There can be a lot of pressure on children to do well in exams and this can often leave them feeling overwhelmed and stressed out.  Sometimes the demands to do well at school can be brought on by themselves or prompted by people around them.  Feeling anxious at such times is understandable, but for some young people the pressure can become too much to bear.

When we feel stressed, scared or nervous our body responds by releasing stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.  These hormones cause increases in heart rate, muscle tightening, blood pressure and a quickening of breath. These physical changes increase stamina and make you more alert, preparing you to either fight or flee from the situation you face.

Experiencing these physical changes before and during an exam is normal and sometimes they can actually make us feel motivated to achieve, more alert, confident and enthusiastic. Stress, however, becomes a problem with it begins to make us feel tense, nervous, anxious, aggressive and panic-stricken.  If severe or prolonged, stress can impair concentration and performance.

Symptoms of excessive stress include:

  • Headaches, dizziness and stomach upset
  • Preoccupation with thoughts of exams and inability to relax
  • Withdrawal from friends, family and hobbies
  • Constant tiredness due to problems sleeping
  • Loss of appetite of over-eating
  • Seeing only the negative side of things
  • Becoming more aggressive and short tempered with those around you
  • Feeling so low and desperate that children don’t want to go to school, feel like running away or self-harming

If you think your child is feeling these symptoms it’s important to encourage them to seek support as soon as possible – from you as a parent or another trusted family member, friend or teacher at school. It doesn’t matter who, it’s just important they speak to someone.

You can also help your child to minimise exam stress in the following ways:

  • Develop a realistic revision timetable, by making a list of the subjects/topics they need to focus on. Feeling prepared and organised can reduce stress;
  • During exam time it is important to manage time properly.  Try to help your child maintain a healthy balance between practice papers and other activities they enjoy – taking time out will help them to relax and can take their mind off revision. Long periods of continuous study can overload young brains, making it difficult to concentrate and be productive. Remember to build regular breaks into revision schedules and be mindful that the average attention span lasts around 40 minutes;
  • Engaging in some form of physical activity during the break is a good way to reduce anxiety levels and help them relax. Even something simple like walking up and down the stairs can be enough to move the body and refocus on a different subject;
  • Remember everyone revises differently. Some children might sail through practice papers easily following a short break after school – even ten minutes doing something relaxing first, is beneficial. For some however, waiting until after dinner before commencing revision, would be preferable. Compare how efficient they are at different times of the day and use different study methods, from practice papers to spelling drills out in the garden or even maths quizzes at bathtime;
  • Ask for help from their teacher if there are things you don’t understand.
  • Always offer encouragement and support – try not to criticise or place added pressure on them;
  • Praising and encouraging their efforts and achievements can be motivating and demonstrates your support for them;
  • Try to keep things in perspective and encourage them to do the same – remember that exam results are not the only indicator of a young person’s capabilities.

We’ve also enlisted the help of consultant psychiatrist, Dr Phil Anderson, who, as part of Children’s Mental Health Week, has provided helpful information on this topic. See here for more https://www.amh.org.uk/news/understanding-stress-dr-phil-anderson/ or read on.

Understanding Stress

In any part of life, the key to managing a problem is truly understanding what the nature of the problem is in the first place. This is no different to young people facing the problem of stress. Stress is widely understood as ‘bad’ and ‘something to be avoided’.  There can often be a misunderstanding that day-to-day stress causes similar harm to the toxic stress I previously discussed. (See link above).  The stress response is our bodies’ way of helping us perform at our best and keep us safe from harm.  Stretching ourselves beyond comfortable limits, whether playing sport or sitting an exam, will not always feel nice, but our development as a person and our abilities cannot happen any other way.  Avoiding stress does not really work and in the end is not really possible.

Similar to how a vaccine helps our immune systems to prevent us becoming ill from harmful pathogens, stress is known to have an inoculating effect. Research shows that young persons who manage to overcome life’s challenges will develop higher levels of resilience.

We need to properly understand the benefits of day-to-day stress ourselves and be careful about how we communicate this to young people. How they understand stress has been shown to have important effects. Young persons with a positive view on stress have been demonstrated to outperform those with a more negative view.

Mindfulness can be an effective way of gaining better understanding and control of our stress.  It is the process of bringing focused attention to experiences occurring in the present moment. A large volume of research has demonstrated the benefits of mindfulness in developing our emotional resilience. Children can learn to pay focused attention and help regulate difficult emotions even in the most difficult challenges life can throw our way. There are a variety of ways of exploring this with young persons, depending on their developmental stage. This can include deep breathing (one hand on stomach, one on the heart) or the use of mindfulness phone-based applications (available online).

The issue of exam stress has also been dramatised by the children of Carrickfergus Grammar School who collaborated with the Northern Area Mental Health Initiative to produce the following film…

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