Helping children manage stress during exam season

The summer term has started, and so has exam time so we are looking at helping children manage exam season stress.  Children in years 2 and 6 are taking the controversial SATs, secondary-aged children are sitting life-changing GCSEs and of course those older children whose future education is hanging on their A-Level performances.  The effect of these tests and exams can resonate through whole families.

Let’s get down to how parents can actually support and help their children deal with stress during the exam period. It’s totally normal to feel some nerves before exams and this can be motivating and help zone in on the task in hand.  However too much anxiety means one can’t think clearly, reason, plan well and make good decisions which impacts on studying and exam performance.

When anyone is stressed the amygdala kicks in. We tend to become emotional, angry, fearful or frustrated.  The pre- frontal cortex is the part of the brain that distinguishes humans from animals.  It’s what tells the amygdala to calm down so we can cope with stress.  It helps to regulate blood pressure, heart rate and glucose levels which all influence how we feel about a situation.

Here are some very practical tips to quieten down the amygdala and enable the pre-frontal cortex to function: 
  • Talk to your child regularly and try to understand the cause of their anxiety so they feel heard and understood. Is it feeling unprepared, pressure from parents, teachers or peers, unrealistic expectations, overwhelm with too much to do and not enough time? Don’t dismiss them or try to just make the feeling go away.
  • Ask your child to spend 5 minutes listing all the things that take up their mental space and energy. Look at every item and place them into two categories: control and concern. Control are things you can actively do something about and concern are things you have no influence over.  People who handle stress well, minimise stuff in the concern circle and spend energy on addressing the things they can control.
  • Have a longer term study timetable but then focus on one day at a time. Help them prioritise, break tasks down into manageable chunks and set small, realistic, achievable goals.
  • Engage in physical activity which helps to boost energy levels, clear the mind and work off excess adrenalin so they can feel calmer.
  • Eat little and often, avoid too much caffeine or sugar which affects concentration. Keep hydrated as water helps the electromagnetic activity in the brain.
  • Get enough sleep which can still be regarded as study time as the brain processes information taken in during the day.
  • Learn, model and share stress management skills such as relaxation, breathing techniques, mediation mindfulness, massage, yoga, EFT and  visualisation
  • Schedule in some unstructured downtime, ideally with a social component.
  • Remember your child’s strengths and passions – encourage some activities that they are good at which involve laughing.
  • Limit screens and access to social media as this swallows up hours of precious time. Also steer clear of peers who make them feel more stressed.
  • Having a positive attitude and the right mind set will determine how motivated they feel, how much they learn and ultimately how well they do. Athletes, for example work on their mental state as well as physical and use psychologists to ensure peak performance.

Now I’m going to go away and follow this advice for myself between now and mid -June.

Just “chill out mum” as my kids tell me!!!

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