The transition from primary school to secondary is a difficult path for young people to tread, in many respects. Tackling GL and AQE tests can prove especially challenging and stressful for some children.
But in times of uncertainty presented by the continuing pandemic, it is no surprise that ten and eleven year olds across the country who are facing the tests – and their parents – are feeling extra stress around this particular milestone.
The possibility of catching the virus, getting sick or having to isolate in the precious final weeks up to the first test – with the GL taking place on November 13 and a follow-up supplementary test on December 11 – means tensions are understandably high among some children.
It also means that for those taking both the GL and AQE, which take place on November 20, 27 and December 4, anxiety about the chance of disruption to studying and physically sitting the tests could last over a prolonged period from the first to the final exam.
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. 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 and a preoccupation with thoughts of exams and inability to relax. Children may withdraw from friends, family and hobbies and suffer constant tiredness due to problems sleeping.
Some may experience a loss of appetite or over-eating, while some might even be plagued by a general, negative outlook and become aggressive and short-tempered. In extreme cases, some children feel so low and desperate that they don’t want to go to school, feel like running away or succumb to self-harming.
Minimising exam stress
According to Action Mental Health’s MensSana service – which delivers specialist mental health and resilience-building programmes for children of this age – a great emphasis should be placed on finding balance.
Karen Hillis, AMH MensSana Project Manager, reiterated: “Children should revise in short bursts and within realistic timetables, taking regular movement breaks or exercise, and always being mindful of different learning styles. It is advisable that parents praise rather than apply pressure and to create suitable and calm environment in which to study, without distractions.”
The night before
On the night before each exam, you can help lessen your child’s anxiety by ensuring they get organised early, having their school uniform, permitted stationery and test entrance ID all ready for the morning.
Then, do something the child enjoys most, like watching a movie, followed by a bath and hot chocolate before getting to bed at a reasonable time – a good night’s sleep will reduce stress!
On the morning of each test, leave plenty of time for breakfast and getting to the test venue on time.
Breathing exercises – like those highlighted in the following video – might be an additional way of calming those frayed nerves.
And remember, ‘Working hard is important but there is something that matters even more: believing in yourself’ – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by JK Rowling.