The summer term has started, and so has exam time so we are looking at helping children manage exam season stress. While the lead in to the May half term is just a few weeks, for some families this time will be a highly stressful period. Children in years 2 and 6 are taking the controversial SATs, secondary-aged children are sitting life-changing GCSEs and of course those older children whose future education is hanging on their A-Level performances. The effect of these tests and exams can resonate through whole families.
We have spoken to our education expert Rachel Vecht on her experience of helping children manage exam season stress.
I have 25 years of experience in education under my belt: teaching children and guiding and supporting parents. However nothing has quite prepared me for the stress I’m feeling now with my eldest sitting A’ levels in a few weeks and number 2 taking GCSEs. The irony is in that in our home, I’m definitely more anxious about the upcoming exams than my kids. I know I should be grateful that they are level-headed and take things in their stride but I think a bit of stress and adrenalin rush to fire you into working as effectively as possible is a good thing at this late stage!!!! My daughter keeps telling me I should be happy that she’s balanced, not freaking out and doesn’t have mental health issues like some of her friends, who seem to do nothing other than work.
Whilst I’m very anti ‘helicopter parenting’ and have tried to teach my children how to be independent and take responsibility for themselves, I still feel that having them taking exams is worse than doing them myself because I’m not in control of what happens.
As it should be, it’s all down to them.
Let’s get down to how parents can actually support and help their children deal with stress during the exam period. It’s totally normal to feel some nerves before exams and this can be motivating and help zone in on the task in hand. However too much anxiety means one can’t think clearly, reason, plan well and make good decisions which impacts on studying and exam performance.
When anyone is stressed the amygdala kicks in. We tend to become emotional, angry, fearful or frustrated. The pre- frontal cortex is the part of the brain that distinguishes humans from animals. It’s what tells the amygdala to calm down so we can cope with stress. It helps to regulate blood pressure, heart rate and glucose levels which all influence how we feel about a situation.
Here are some very practical tips to quieten down the amygdala and enable the pre-frontal cortex to function:
- Talk to your child regularly and try to understand the cause of their anxiety so they feel heard and understood. Is it feeling unprepared, pressure from parents, teachers or peers, unrealistic expectations, overwhelm with too much to do and not enough time? Don’t dismiss them or try to just make the feeling go away.
- Ask your child to spend 5 minutes listing all the things that take up their mental space and energy. Look at every item and place them into two categories: control and concern. Control are things you can actively do something about and concern are things you have no influence over. People who handle stress well, minimise stuff in the concern circle and spend energy on addressing the things they can control.
- Have a longer term study timetable but then focus on one day at a time. Help them prioritise, break tasks down into manageable chunks and set small, realistic, achievable goals.
- Engage in physical activity which helps to boost energy levels, clear the mind and work off excess adrenalin so they can feel calmer.
- Eat little and often, avoid too much caffeine or sugar which affects concentration. Keep hydrated as water helps the electromagnetic activity in the brain.
- Get enough sleep which can still be regarded as study time as the brain processes information taken in during the day.
- Learn, model and share stress management skills such as relaxation, breathing techniques, mediation mindfulness, massage, yoga, EFT and visualisation
- Schedule in some unstructured downtime, ideally with a social component.
- Remember your child’s strengths and passions – encourage some activities that they are good at which involve laughing.
- Limit screens and access to social media as this swallows up hours of precious time. Also steer clear of peers who make them feel more stressed.
- Having a positive attitude and the right mind set will determine how motivated they feel, how much they learn and ultimately how well they do. Athletes, for example work on their mental state as well as physical and use psychologists to ensure peak performance.
Now I’m going to go away and follow this advice for myself between now and mid -June.
Just “chill out mum” as my kids tell me!!!
By Rachel Vecht
Educating Matters provide seminars, webinars, courses and one-to-one consultations for parents in the workplace, schools, homes and remotely. Covering a wide range of education and parenting related topics.
Parents are a child’s first and most important teacher’