How Can We Help Our Kids Dial Down Exam Stress?
By Linda Stade
Exam stress is awful. I remember in boarding school counting down the days until my exams, writing out reams of notes, cramming late into the night, and getting up ridiculously early to stuff a little more into my brain. My friends were the same and together we created our own little quietly hysterical pack.
That was the 1980s, but unfortunately, nothing has changed. If anything, the stress around examinations has only increased with the introduction of national testing. There seems to be increased focus on exams and a belief that success in exams equals success in life. It’s simply not true. However, learning how to manage stress, how to learn and retain information, and how to employ the resources available to you WILL lead to greater success in life.
Parents and schools need to shift the emphasis away from the examinations themselves and onto the processes involved in preparing for exams. Lourdes Hill College’s Assistant Principal – Learning and Teaching, Kath Perrier agrees. She says, “How fortunate is it to experience challenges and a bit of stress at school when it is such a supportive environment already? The teachers are on your side, parents are on your side and you have peers going through the experiences with you. There is support alongside the stress. That may not be the case when you leave school.”
She makes a solid point. All people experience stress, it’s part of our human-ness. In moderation, it is our body’s natural way of getting ready for challenges. School provides a perfect environment to first experience stress and be coached in the skills needed to deal with it. That is, so long as parents and teachers are coaching and not just adding fuel to the fire.
How do we coach our children through examination stress?
We coach our children through examination stress by focusing on the processes involved rather than on the actual exam. We teach fundamental lessons about preparation, study, and self-management.
1. Routine, routine, routine
The examination stress most students experience is sudden and overwhelming. It can cause the school year to feel like a stress rollercoaster; sometimes you’re up and the world looks good and sometimes you’re descending at breakneck speed and completely out of control. Routine can break this cycle.
Ms Perrier says, “When students even out their workload they even out their stress. They need a routine that includes study, exercise, sleep, and socialising. Sit down with your child and talk about balance and planning.”
When students revise consistently throughout the year, the exam period becomes an opportunity to show what they have learnt rather than being a threat.
Ms Perrier says her many years managing learning and teaching have shown her that the students who are most successful are not the ones who are the brightest, they are the ones who are the most organised.
These organised students:
have a great study spot at home that is quiet and uncluttered
use study timetables to plan which subjects will be covered each night and then tick them off when they are done
chunk their time: 50 minutes of solid study, followed by 10 minutes of relaxing. In those 10 minutes they do something fun like listening to music, having a quick chat with family, or playing with the dog
These are all skills that will help prepare kids for long-term projects they encounter in the future.
You can download a copy of the Lourdes Hill Study Timetable here.
3. Use the resources available
Successful students recognise they are in partnership with their teachers, and they ask for resources, guidance, and help. These students are often the ones who cover all the practise questions in Maths and Science. In Humanities and English, they do practise essays and then ask for feedback from teachers. That feedback allows them to build on their skills.
If your child is really stuck on a concept, encourage them to put their hand up in class and ask the teacher to revise it. Whenever a student does this, there is inevitably a little choir of other students who say, “I don’t get that either.” Asking for help is a life skill. We need to empower our kids to ask for help when they need it. We all need assistance at various stages in life, it is so much easier if you learnt how to ask as a child.
4. Know thyself
Different people study in different ways. Some students work well in study groups and that is legitimate, others work best alone in a very quiet environment. At Lourdes Hill College, the Senior Hub, where the Year 11 and 12 students spend their study periods, is divided into a quiet area and a group study area. Students need to identify what works for them and then exercise some self-discipline.
As in all areas of life, when kids are preparing for exams, we need to make sure they are speaking kindly and positively to themselves. Brains believe what we tell them. Even if your child says they are not understanding a concept, add the word ‘yet’. They aren’t understanding it yet… but they will.
If they feel as though they haven’t learnt anything or they aren’t retaining information, it might be worth doing a mind map of everything they know about the subject. This sort of mind dump, or ‘brain spew’ as some students call it, can reassure them that they know more than they think they do.
6. Dampen down the stress
Cortisol is the stress hormone that floods the brain around examination time. Believe it or not, drinking water helps dampen down cortisol. Chewing also has this effect. The theory is, if the brain senses chewing, it believes that things must be okay. It says to itself, “We wouldn’t be eating if we were really under threat. We must be safe. I can relax.” These suggestions are for the day of exams. In the long-term, follow the research which tells us sleep, exercise, good diet, and mindfulness practices act to moderate cortisol levels.
One final thought…
Before we address the exam anxiety of our children, we need to take a good hard look at ourselves, what we believe and what we are projecting. Too often we imply to kids that exams are life or death. Of course, we are only trying to motivate them, but it serves to heighten their fear response. Nobody learns effectively when they are afraid and overwhelmed.
Let’s refocus. Concentrate on what your child can learn from the exam process rather than what mark they might get. After all, that learning is what will make the biggest difference to their lives in the long run.