20 WAYS TO HELP KIDS COPE WITH EXAM STRESS
By Jo McCarthy
Exams are an unavoidable part of school life that can raise the stress in a family home to unbearable levels, even if your children are conscientious learners.
British youngsters are among the most tested in the world, and many London parents (who may have had to battle long and hard for a decent school space in the first place) can feel as overwhelmed as their kids at exam time.
Overworked teachers might not be able to offer the support you need. Exam stress is real and can feel never-ending.
To help you out, we have collected together 20 practical suggestions for you as parents and some that you can share with your kids.
Let us know which tips on coping with exam stress you find to be useful.
Make the home as relaxed as possible
Easier said than done, we know. Try these ideas:
Set aside time for your kids to do absolutely nothing. Making time to chill out as a family and do nothing more than watch TV or walk the dog will help to keep the family together at a time when your anxious child could easily retreat into their own shell. Although it might seem counter-intuitive, scheduling regular time slots when your kids know they can just switch off and not be nagged about anything will help them to be structured at other times.
Make sure the family eats healthy, nutritious food (including bananas, which are known to have high levels of potassium and magnesium which promote concentration). Your stressed teenagers may think that a junk food diet and sugary midnight snacks are the way to go, but you know it’s not. For ideas about involving your kids in cooking, read this piece on cooking with your children. If possible, sit down for meals as a family.
Whilst revision time isn’t the moment to argue about tidying up, try to encourage your kids to have calm bedrooms where they can study in peace. Unless you have a space at home for the kids to work, most children will use their bedrooms for revision. Although some children will prefer to study in bed, if possible, try to squeeze in a small desk area where they can lay out all their revision materials. Treat them to affordable desk accessories from Tiger and HEMA.
Try to limit tech in the evenings. We know that light from devices can interfere with sleep, so try to have a family wind-down before bedtime that does not involve checking Instagram or Facebook, or playing computer games. As parents, you can lead by example and try to put your phone away too!
If your child has a TV in their bedroom, talk to them about switching it off long before bedtime. (Let us know how that goes!). Any rules that are made during revision and exam times can be relaxed during the holidays or at weekends.
Try to talk positively about the exam period. Your child’s inner voice might be telling that that they are bound to fail, bound to let everyone down. Try to avoid nagging, asking ‘what’s wrong’ with every quiet mood or every time you see them breaking their revision schedule. The more that home can be a safe space for your child, the more likely they are to cope with the stressful exam period.
Using technology to make revising more enjoyable
There are many revision apps available that might help your child create their own revision plan. For example, Gojimo is a free revision app that shares content for SATS as well as the 11+, 13+, GCSE and A-Level revision content.
If you think it might help, encourage your child to create a study playlist. Some say that playing music whilst studying can help the information go in, but studies on this are divided. If you would rather limit music whilst studying, perhaps the tunes can go on during break times.
Make your own flash cards. They might seem old-fashioned, but flash cards are a great way to drill information into the brain. IXL has Maths and English flashcards for Reception aged kids to Year 13. It also has timed tests where your kids can practice exam questions.
Suggest that your child reads and records their study notes on their phone. Reading out loud is one way to learn and playing the study notes back (perhaps whilst travelling to school) can be a good way to passively take the information in.
Encourage your kids to set up study groups on Facebook or WhatsApp. Your kids are probably using these apps anyway, but suggesting that they use them with a purpose could help them see that revising doesn’t have to be a lonely, stressful event.
Limit revision time. Encourage your kids to take a break of 15 minutes for every hour of studying. The Pomodoro method is also really popular: set a timer (the original one was a tomato shaped kitchen timer, that's why it’s called "Pomodoro") for 25 minutes and do your focused uninterrupted work. When the timer buzzes, you should take a 5-minute break and, after that, start another Pomodoro cycle of 25+5 minutes. It might take some trial and error to work out how long your child can work for without a break. Don’t panic if they seem to be taking regular breaks – it is, in the long run, the best way to learn.
Talk about life after the exams
Try to plan treats and rewards for after the exams. Some find that being away on holiday when the exam results are released is a good way to avoid those frantic results day stresses, especially if your child feels they may have not done as well as they had hoped.
Ask your friends and family to talk about their experiences of exams – and most importantly, what they have done since! Being surrounded by a variety of diverse, positive role models can help your child to have a wider circle of support than just their peers.
Talk positively about potential Plan Bs – if your child doesn’t pass the 11+, SATS, GCSEs, A-Levels, it’s going to be OK. Even supposed ‘failures’ can be outstanding learning experiences.
Work at shifting the mindset that exam success is everything. Of course, we want our kids to achieve and contribute successfully to society, but this can be done in a wide variety of ways. Promote qualities that will help your child be well-rounded and content.
Try to use your contacts to set up work experience for your children. They will then start to see how taking exams can fit into the whole structure of adult life. It might also help them decide if further or higher education is for them, and the career path that they’d like to take.
If things are really stressful and you can’t cope
Don’t struggle alone. Many parents find that talking to others about this stressful time can help to keep things in perspective. Identify compassionate friends and family members who will have lots of good advice. It’s not helpful to promote competition or rivalry so avoid parents that stir this up in you!
If you don’t have an environment at home that’s conducive for learning and revising, make use of your local library. Some libraries have Homework Helpers who can provide computers, internet access, guidance with their revision and time to work out tricky tasks at no cost and no questions asked.
Exam stress can exacerbate other issues. For example, if your child is being bullied, the idea of sitting in an exam hall with kids they don’t like can be completely overwhelming. If your child is dyslexic, the idea of having strict time limits with which to complete an exam paper may put them off taking the test altogether. Plan ahead for these problems; talk through these concerns with a teacher or the SENCO and try to find some practical solutions.
Charities such as Young Minds work to support children who are struggling with mental health issues. Mind has some practical, actionable advice for coping with stress and anxiety. These charities offer free support to adults and children, and can help you cope with the extra pressures you might face during exam times.
How do you cope with exam stress in your house?