How to support your child through the stress of revision and exams
The secret to success in exams is to make good use of planning to help organise effective revision. You can help your child to create a clear revision plan and way of studying that will make them feel in control of their work.
Useful tips for revision planning:
- work out a revision timetable for each subject
- break revision time into small chunks. Hour-long sessions with short breaks at the end of each session often work well
- make sure your child has all the essential books and materials
- condense notes onto postcards to act as revision prompts
- buy new stationery, highlighters and pens to make revision more interesting
- go through school notes with your child or listen while they revise a topic
- time your child's attempts at practice papers
Help at home
At this demanding time, aim to make home life as calm and pleasant as possible. It helps if other family members are aware that your child may be under pressure, and make allowances for this.
If your child is given study leave before exams, try to be at home as much as possible, so that you can share a break and a chat together. If this is not possible, check regularly that they are making progress and offer encouragement.
Plenty of healthy snacks in the fridge will help motivate, and keep your child’s energy levels high. Try to provide good, nutritious meals at regular intervals. Encourage your child to join family meals, even if it's a busy revision day - it's important to have a change of scene and get away from the books and computer for a while. Also encourage your child to take regular exercise. A brisk walk around the block can help clear the mind before the next revision session.
Although it can be difficult, try not to nag or make too many demands on your child during exam time. Arguments are counter-productive and will only add unnecessary stress and distract from revision.
Bribes, treats and rewards
Some children are offered cash or gifts by parents to achieve good grades. There is much discussion on this in the media. Some people believe that this implies that the only worthwhile reward for hard work is money, and that you don’t trust your child to work hard.
Try to encourage your child to do well for his or her own sake rather than for money, or to please you. Explain that exams aren't an end in themselves, but a gateway to the next stage of life - to another Key Stage, A levels, university, college or work. Good results are themselves the best reward for hard work and will make your child proud of his or her achievements.
Make sure your child knows you're interested in their work and that you'll be proud if they do well. Although bribery isn't advisable, it's fine to provide small treats by way of encouragement - perhaps a piece of cake or some biscuits after a chunk of revision has been completed. The end of exams can be celebrated with a treat that everyone can look forward to, such as a meal out or a trip to the cinema.
The prospect of facing important exams can lead to great stress for students, and those who live with them.
The words stress and pressure are often substituted for one another, but in fact they are quite different. Pressure can be positive, and useful to complete deadlines or to help somebody avoid danger. However, when pressure is prolonged, it can become counterproductive and lead to the development of stress.
What is exam stress?
For some people, the increased pressure around exam time may lead to them experiencing stress symptoms much more readily than others. Stress is an adverse reaction to excessive pressure or demands, and varies from person to person. A stress response is a normal physical response to events that make you feel threatened. However, we do know that prolonged stress can lead to illness, both mental and physical.
What causes exam stress?
Exam stress is a natural reaction to pressure, which may be caused by:
- Inability to accept failure or uncertainty
- Pessimism or negative self-talk
- Unrealistic expectations (either of the student or the parents)
- Life transitions
- Family issues and/or relationship difficulties
- Performance anxiety.
What are the known impacts of exam stress?
When a person is stressed over something, their body reacts accordingly. Adequate approaches for managing extreme exam stress are vital, to prevent negative results including lower grades than anticipated. Over the long term, various physical health problems such as digestive problems, eczema, as well as mental health issues such as anxiety or depression could develop.
What can you expect to see if your child has exam stress?
Stress symptoms vary. Responses can differ between boys and girls as well, with research showing girls present internal symptoms and responses such as nausea, butterflies and feelings of inadequacy which can lead to sadness and depression. Boys tend to externalise their anxiety and can become increasingly irritable or angry.
Increased pressure can switch the body into a 'fight or flight' response which releases increased amounts of adrenalin into the bloodstream. This can lead to various symptoms including:
- Feeling cranky and irritable (increased yelling or crying, swearing, hitting)
- Indecisiveness and/or confusion
- Problems with going to sleep or getting up in the morning
- Strongly beating heart, sweating
- Mild chest pains, back pains, nausea, trembling, shortness of breath
- Minor stomach upsets
- Possible skin breakouts
- Teeth grinding, nail biting and fidgeting
- Constipation or diarrhoea
- Going blank in the exam.
If exam stress or stress in general is not resolved responsibly, it can lead to more serious problems, including increased smoking, drinking or drug use, losing touch with friends and feelings of inadequacy.
What influences a person's stress tolerance level?
Support network - A student experiencing exam stress will have a better response if they are well supported by parents or other caring adults.
Sense of control - Having a sense of control about what to expect on the day, what to learn and ways to systematically revise will help a student to manage their exam stress.
Positive attitude and outlook – Helping your child to see the bright side, to laugh and to appreciate the positives in life will help them to see things in perspective. People who are resilient to stressors have an optimistic attitude.
Preparation – Good preparation for a stressful situation, such as an exam, makes it easier to cope. A student's stress level is often influenced by the amount of preparation and planning they have put into studying, and how confident they feel about the material they have revised
What can parents and carers do about exam stress?
One of the best things parents or carers can do to help with exam stress is to try to be as supportive and tolerant as possible.
The strategies below may be helpful to families coping with exam stress.
Effective study and learning habits
- Help your child find a quiet place to study without distractions. Make sure their table is uncluttered so they can focus better.
- Encourage your child to find out exactly what the test involves - are there past test papers they can look at to help them understand what to expect?
- Encourage your child to ask for help or ask their teacher for clarity if they are unsure of something or if they feel confused.
- Help your child to make 'mind maps' to collect ideas and summarise thoughts - use bright colours to help remember important links.
- Help your child to plan their study schedule early on so they have sufficient time to study. It can be helpful to develop a clear, realistic plan of what they want to cover in each study session. Can they break it down into small chunks?
- Remind your child to take a short rest and move around in between each part of their study.
- Encourage your child to come to planned interventions and Revision Sessions.
- Offer help sometimes. It can be useful having someone to listen or practise with.
Healthy sleeping and eating habits
- Encourage your child to stick to a routine of going to bed at a reasonable time. They should avoid late night TV shows or movies.
- Motivate them to eat regularly, and make time to have fun and exercise.
- Help your child to cut back on coffee or any other stimulants which they may be using, as these can increase agitation. Encourage them to drink lots of water instead.
- Remind them to take time out when they eat, rather than carrying on with study.
- Encourage them to eat fresh fruit, vegetables, cereals, grains, nuts and protein - they are all good for the brain and blood sugar levels.
- Encourage eating when they get hungry. This keeps blood sugar and hydration levels steady.
- Avoid junk food if possible. Junk food can trigger a sudden sugar high which will fall away quickly, leaving a person feeling tired.
Relaxation ideas to help your child cope with exam stress
- Always encourage your child to relax before they go to bed after concentrating for long periods of time. Activities such as reading may help them unwind and sleep better.
- Encourage them to go out for a walk, run or do some other exercise they enjoy.
- Teach them relaxation techniques such as listening to some gentle music, getting them to lie down, close their eyes and taking deep breaths while visualising a calming scene such as a deserted beach.
- Help your child to develop a positive mindset by encouraging them to visualise success - this can really help with self-confidence.
Ideas for exam day
Talk about these ideas before exam day so as not to add to anxiety levels.
Suggest to your child that they:
- Get a good night's sleep before exams, so discourage your child from staying up late.
- Pack bags with any essential equipment the night before the exam, so that your child is prepared in the morning.
- Eat a good and light breakfast - something that will sustain them and help them concentrate.
- Try to arrive at school or the exam venue early.
- Go to the toilet before the exam starts.
- Keep away from people who may agitate them before the test or may say unhelpful, anxiety-provoking comments.
- Try writing about their thoughts and feelings at least 10 minutes before the exam to free up brainpower from focusing on emotions, so they can focus on the test material instead.
- Take time to slow their breathing and relax when they first sit down in the exam room.
- Skim over the exam paper, underlining key words and instructions.
- Work out how long they have for each question or section.
- Watch out for the wording of the questions - they need to understand and address what the question is really asking.
- Answer the questions they find easiest first to build their confidence, then as they relax more move on to more difficult ones.
- Don't worry about how long others are taking but keep an eye on the clock to ensure they have enough time to answer the more difficult questions.
- Re-read answers if possible and make any changes that are necessary - correct spelling, check workings.
If your child does not feel that they have done well in the exam and they feel very upset about it, reassure them that there is always a second chance and passing an exam is only part of the story. It may be helpful to take some time to discuss any problems they had so they can avoid them next time.
BBC Parenting Advice