Exam season is stressful for everyone. Teachers are under pressure to meet targets, parents feel anxious knowing the role exams can play in future success, and for the young person, they may feel like their entire school career has worked towards this moment.
So how do we support children and young people to cope with exams, without their mental health being put at risk?
Here are our top five tips for taking the stress out of tests.
1. Use positive language
We all know exams are important. For many of us, the results will have a lasting impact on our self-image and the life path we choose. However, sharing this wisdom is unlikely to inspire children and young people in the way we hope. Fear is not an effective strategy for success and piling on the pressure will not improve their chances of success. Creating an atmosphere of optimism, self-belief and determination will give the child the resilience to cope with exams.
When supporting them with their studies, it’s tempting to focus on improving areas of weakness, however, focusing on strengths is the key to building self-esteem. If they’re great at algebra but struggle with geometry, make sure they’re getting plenty of practice at both. Their success at algebra will remind them that they can do it!
2. Separate your own anxieties
Often children and young people feed off the anxiety of the adults around them. Teachers can feel under huge pressure to get results and may find it hard not to transfer this onto the students. For parents, perhaps they were disappointed with their own results and want more for their own child, or perhaps they did well and expect their child to do the same.
Before we talk to a child or young person about exams, it helps to pause and think ‘What are my core beliefs when it comes to exams? Where did they come from? What was my experience of going through exams? What will the impact be on me, if they don’t perform well?’ Carefully reflecting on the answer to these questions is vital. By separating what is our stress from what is theirs, we can avoid causing unnecessary anxiety.
3. Allow them to have 'down time'
It can be tempting to put a stop to socialising, devices or online activity so the child or young person can give their full attention to their studies. However, quality time talking to friends will help them reduce anxiety and build resilience, so it’s important they’re still able to engage in whatever relaxes them. A good support structure is essential to coping with stress and this does not change in exam season, so seeing their friends should still be encouraged.
It’s possible they may need more support, perhaps a school mentor or a counsellor if they’re really struggling. Children and young people need the chance to talk about what’s making them anxious with someone whom they trust to be empathetic and non-judgmental, but they also need the chance to turn off the noise and just chill out with their friends too.
4. Educate them about mental health
‘Psycho-educating’ children and young people on stress and anxiety can be a helpful strategy to prepare them for exams. Teaching them to recognise the different ways stress can manifest, such as sleeplessness, changes to appetite, becoming withdrawn or having mood swings, can help to normalise what they’re going through. This will encourage them to seek support and open up about their exam stress. It can also be helpful to teach them some stress-busting strategies that they can use before exams, or whenever they’re feeling panicked or overwhelmed. This could be grounding activities or mindful breathing.
5. Promote a healthy lifestyle
While mindfulness strategies can be helpful, there’s no ‘quick fix’ for coping with feelings of anxiety. A healthy lifestyle is the biggest key to managing exam stress. Good sleep hygiene, a balanced online life, exercise and a healthy diet are the best way to produce endorphins, the chemical which reduces stress and anxiety. A healthy lifestyle will help them to build resilience and they’ll be more likely to cope with heightened stress. Supporting the young person to continue with sports and hobbies, and discouraging them from late-night revision sessions will help them to maintain good health.
We often reassure children and young people that exams ‘don’t really matter’, but the truth is, we know they’re important. Giving them the best chance at doing well is vital, but as adults, we’re wise enough to know that there are many different paths. Exams can be retaken, or careers can be followed that don’t require academic success. Promoting hard work, without fixating on outcomes will help to put the dreaded tests into perspective.
If you know a child who needs some support with exam stress, perhaps they could benefit from our counselling service. Why not Get in touch to find out more.