Exam time can be a challenge for almost all children, parents, teachers and carers. Almost everyone involved will feel some level of stress or anxiety. Stress is an evolutionary tool that ensures we get things done and meet our goals, however, sometimes stress becomes counterproductive.
As adults who support children during exam periods it is important to notice if they exhibit any of the following signs of atypical exam stress:
Emotional and cognitive (thought processes)
* Periods of crying and / or intense mood swings
* Struggling to concentrate
* Negative thoughts such as thinking their situation is hopeless
* Extreme anxiety or panic attacks
Behavioural and physical
* Psychosomatic symptoms such as frequent headaches and stomach aches
* Changes to sleeping patterns including sleeping more, sleeping less or waking up frequently
* Changes to eating patterns including eating more, eating less or eating different types of food
* Avoidance or withdrawal from loved ones
* New habits forming, or old habits returning such as chewing on hair or biting finger nails
* Substance use such as using alcohol to avoid thinking about the exams
Supporting children and teenagers with exam stress
If you know that a child or teen you are working with is struggling with exam stress, try the following strategies:
Revision can be all consuming for young people who have exams coming up. Even when they take a break from active revision they may socialise with friends who are also revising. Although some level of sharing experiences can be helpful, the young people are likely to compare revision or knowledge levels which can increase their anxiety. Instead, support them by minimising the amount of time spend talking about revision or exams (without ignoring it entirely!) and talk about something that the young person enjoys.
Some young people can feel exam pressure to such an extent that they feel they must spend every waking hour revising. However, this quickly becomes counterproductive with fatigue and frustration soon settling in. It is helpful to have frequent short breaks as well as a longer break for meal times, for example, a 15-minute break every 30-90 minutes (depending on the age and concentration level of the young person) and then a break of at least an hour for meals. Depending on the age of the child or teen they may be able to self-regulate this approach with your support, or they may need you to structure it entirely for them. It is important to do enjoyable and relaxing activities during these breaks. Limiting access to social media may also be helpful if this increases the young person’s anxiety levels.
During exam times one of the most important things supportive adults can do is help the young person maintain routines. This includes eating regularly and healthily, sleeping at the same time as usual and continuing to attend clubs or other extracurricular activities. Not only does this provide proper breaks from revision but it ensures the young person’s self-worth isn’t entirely dependent upon exam results.
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