Category Archives: Exams

Parents don’t overstress about exams

Link to original article here

I am seriously not enjoying myself. I’ve had sleepless nights for at least two months and feel stressed. I’m finding the experience of having my children sitting exams far worse than doing them myself.  

I’m truly not a hovering, helicopter parent and have always encouraged my kids to be independent, take responsibility for their learning and make their own mistakes. However, it is so hard just to stand back.  

I asked one of my children when could I expect to see some sense of urgency. Surely a bit of an adrenalin rush is good to focus the mind. The response was: “You should be so grateful I’m chilled and not suffering from anxiety or mental health issues.” A valid point I can’t argue with.

The irony is over the last few months I have delivered many talks to parents in corporates on how to support children through exams, revision technique, managing stress. However now that my kids have reached this stage, I’m asking myself how much does traditional education really matter?

I’m not telling them but we all know that grades are only really relevant in the short term. They don’t define you. They are a stepping-stone to get into university and help secure your first job, but after that no one really cares.  When was the last time someone asked you your grades? Do your own parents even remember them?

I have met many academic, straight-A* graduates who still struggle to find a job or work out what they want to do with their life. Real “success” in life is so much more than good grades in school. If the world has moved on so rapidly since we were children and technology is so advanced, why is it that the school system hasn’t evolved? A-levels might require some higher-order thinking, forming opinions and analysis but GCSEs are essentially an exercise in memory retention.  

What’s the point of the new revised GCSES that make kids learn maths formulas off by heart? Why not just give them the formula in the exam? Surely the maths part is about testing whether they can apply it?  

Some time ago IBM conducted the largest study of over 1,500 corporate heads across sixty nations and found that creativity is the most important leadership quality for success in business. Yet all this focus on testing feels like the education system is crushing creativity and any encouragement to think outside the box.

I recently went to a parents’ evening for one of my younger children and she received glowing reports about her positive energy, leadership and communication skills, being proactive, conscientious, creative and sociable. One teacher remarked her qualities are something money can’t buy and no one can teach. 

That gave me so much more joy than if they’d reported she was in top sets for every subject. I know these are the characteristics that will enable her to do anything she sets hers her mind to. I genuinely believe solid EQ (level of emotional intelligence) will determine the quality of a person’s life in a much more fundamental way than IQ.

Parenting has become a bit of a competitive sport and I wish I could step out of this pressure cooker and not care so much. It’s crazy that even students in top private schools are having loads of tutoring — a security blanket to guarantee outstanding grades. Yet are they independent learners or heavily reliant on being spoon fed? What happens when they get to university and then have to study on their own?  

Far more important than the content children learn at school are the non-cognitive skills that significantly contribute to their performance.  Things like grit, self-belief, resilience, growth mindset (the belief it’s always possible to develop) and work ethic. These life skills are the most beneficial thing about exams: developing discipline, learning how to plan, prioritise and cope with stress and pressure, the attributes they need to succeed in life.

The best books I have read on exams were published onlyfairly recently: The A level Mindset and The GCSE Mindset by Steve Oakes and Martin Griffin. With decades of experience teaching years 10-13, they have tried to analyse what successful students do.

They have nailed it down to what they call VESPA:

Vision — setting clear goals and targets;


Systems — organising their learning and time;

Practice —the way students learn;

and Attitude — being confident, emotionally in control, responding positively to feedback and adopting a growth mindset.

Studying is as much about mastering and understanding yourself as it is about mastering the subject. That’s the true benefit of watching our kids go through this torturous period.

I simply can’t wait until the end of next week. I think I’m more excited about it all being over than my kids are. Maybe then I can go back to sleeping peacefully right through the night.  

Rachel Vecht is director of the educational consultancy Educating Matters,www.educating  

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!!!

Ask Rachel: Teenage stress around exams

Dear Rachel, I am really dreading my upcoming GCSE exams and all the stress that comes with it. I find it so hard to deal with all the pressure of having to buckle down and work and wish I could ignore all the expectations of my friends and parents who are constantly asking me my marks.
The stress is really hectic and causes me to feel anxious and not sleep properly. Please help!

I totally remember that feeling when I had exams. Some stress can actually help you to feel more motivated to work and certainly an adrenalin rush improves concentration in the actual exam. It’s a fine and difficult balance, as too much anxiety can lead to panic and underperformance.

Doing well in your exams should be to make you feel good. It’s not to satisfy your parents, teachers or impress your friends. True gratification comes from within and only you are responsible for your own success. On results day, you want to feel you gave it your best.

I think exam success boils down to 4 main things:

• Memory retention/ knowing your subject matter
• Organisational skills/ balancing different subjects
• Exam technique
• Attitude/ coping with pressure

Whilst tempting, it can be really unhelpful to speak to friends about how they are progressing. Try not to measure yourself against them. They may be the type to say “I’ve been making notes for the last 2 years and done loads of practice papers”. This could make you even more stressed. Or they say “Don’t worry, I have barely done anything”. This may not be true and will give you a false sense of security. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing your marks with your friends then don’t.

Having a positive attitude and the right mind set will determine how much you learn and ultimately how well you do. For example, if you repeatedly say to yourself “I’ll never be able to remember all this” then you won’t! Athletes work a lot on their mental state and use psychologists to ensure peak performance.

Procrastination can also be an issue when studying; just the thought of getting started may be holding you back or not knowing where to begin. Set yourself realistic expectations and targets. Make a revision audit for each subject and break subjects down into manageable chunks, so you feel daily that you are making slow but steady progress.

Your brain will processes information whilst you sleep, so regard sleeping as essential study time. Exercise will also help get more oxygen to your brain and work off excess adrenalin to help with keeping calm. Try and establish a regular sleep pattern and try different techniques to help with sleeping such as a warm bath, hot drink, limit caffeine, meditation and breathing exercises.

Whilst GCSEs feel hugely important now, in the big picture they don’t define you.

Wishing you all the very best.

Exams looming – What is the Parent’s Role?

As a parent, of course you can’t revise for your child or sit the exam for them! However there is lots you can do to help your children get organised, stay motivated and keep calm.

How can you help your child get through exams?

Parents are a child’s first and most important teacher

Don’t leave it all up to the school.  No teacher no matter how dedicated cares as much about a child’s success as a parent does. Parental support is 8x more important  in determining a child’s academic success than social class.


Help your child to set realistic goals. Encourage them to go for their ‘personal’ best. Separate yourself from what you wished for at their age. Some, children are terrified of disappointing their parents. You may feel disappointed by a result but never by the child.  On results day, whatever the outcome, they want to be satisfied that they worked as hard as they could and gave it their all.

The reality is that many children just don’t have the maturity to conduct themselves in this way.  Try and explain when they are older and look back on this period that is what will count, not the individual grades.

Support & encourage

You are the person who loves them the most and they need to know that you are proud of them whatever happens. Try to remain calm and friendly through the revision period, rather than nagging, repeating, arguing or shouting. Help them to keep things in perspective and break down tasks into manageable chunks. Perhaps be a bit more lenient with things like chores.


Encourage your children to work for their own satisfaction, not through bribery. Schedule small and frequent rewards for effort and have some light, fun moments together as a relief from the studying. Focus on what they are doing well and use descriptive praise to mention when you notice them working without having to be reminded, staying focused for a long period etc


Encourage your children to talk about how they are feeling. Help them feel heard and understood so you are an ally not the enemy! Listen attentively to their fears and anxiety without denying them or just trying to make them feel better. Reflect back what they are feeling and empathise.

Training in good study habits

Children need to be taught how to learn and study effectively. This should be happening at school but it could really help if it’s reinforced at home. Some ideas on revision techniques here.

Help them to plan a revision timetable and get organised. Maybe you need to reorganise the family schedule so their revision is a priority and the atmosphere at home is as calm as possible.


Of course, being supportive and giving your children learning tools can help a lot. Unfortunately you can’t however make your child care!  At some stage they must take responsibility for their learning and be willing to put in the hard work.

Wishing your children the very best of luck!

How to revise: your 8-step plan

Exams looming and you’re intimidated by the task ahead?

Read official article published in the national press 

Having spent over 20 years guiding parents, I now have my eldest child sitting GCSEs in a few weeks. What advice will I give? How well a child does in exams reflects not just their ability but their attitude and method. Discipline, planning and prioritising do not come naturally to most children. Doing well is about technique (learning how to learn) and motivation. Ultimately, students have to be responsible for their learning and willing to put in the hard work.

For many the standard technique of revising is reading and highlighting. This becomes quite boring, passive and ineffective. Memory needs to be treated like a muscle, so that dull information can be stored. Memorising is a skill that can be developed and improved.

Different techniques obviously work for different people but to stay alert you need to keep changing and varying the revision method.

Brains love colour, variety, surprise and movement. The more interested the brain is, the easier information goes in and stays in.

The left side of the brain is largely used for thinking about words and numbers, while the right side is used for imagination. The right side needs to be engaged. Brains need a hook or association: picture, pattern, colour, rhyme or story connected with other memories. These hooks work best when they are devised by the student. Memorising should be effective, interesting and enjoyable; most students feel bored, anxious and resentful.

1. Post-it notes/flash cards

Spotlight key words or phrases on post-it notes all over the bedroom, bathroom mirror, toilet door etc. You can even create flash cards online using

2. Mnemonics/Acronyms

These help to recall information but are not so good for understanding.

3. Mind maps

The mind absorbs pictures better than words. Have the main theme in the centre with different branches coming off and sub-divided, using images, symbols, colour and shape.

4. Summary page

Keep reducing and condensing notes until all the major ideas of a whole topic are on one sheet of paper. Reconstruct this sheet at the end of each revision session. You remember what you write five times more than what you read. Try this technique: look, cover, write, check.

5. Link to a song/rhyme/story

Memorise something linked to a tune or rhyme. Record yourself reading notes and listen to them in bed, walking in the street etc.

6. Teach others

Probably the best method there is, as this is not just about memorising but truly understanding. Explaining an idea out loud to a parent, friend or even a teddy in your own words, helps clarify it in your mind. Being asked questions helps to stimulate thinking.

7. Practice Papers

Practice, practice, practice is absolutely essential. The active recall of information from memory is the only way to rehearse what you are required to do in an exam. Exams are about recalling information from memory, organising it and applying it. It’s important to practice time management and complete papers under exam conditions but if time is short, write brief plans to recall the key relevant facts.

8. Review five times

To commit a fact to long term memory it needs to be reviewed at least five times. Straight after, a day later, week later, month later, a few months later. There is no good substitute for spreading out memorising over time.

Don’t forget that exercise boosts memory and brain power. Adequate sleep is also essential as the brain processes the information you have learned and stores it. Find memory techniques that work for you but make sure whatever you choose, you are actively engaging your brain.



Handling Exam Stress

Managing stress around exam time

It is perfectly normal for students to feel a bit nervous during the revision period and particularly in the run up to exams.  That adrenalin rush can even help motivate and focus students.  However too much panicking leads to under-performance from a child who may be perfectly capable and know their subject well.  In recent years, there is more and more written in the media about the state of children’s mental health and the stress they are under.  This  won’t be helped by the changes coming in for GCSE’s and A’ Levels.  Exam periods are also worrying for parents as you think is my child working enough or too much, are they looking after themselves, will they achieve good grades?

Common signs of stress

Parents should look out for children getting:

  • Headaches
  • Back aches
  • Stomach pains
  • Muscular tension
  • Not sleeping as well
  • Moody, irritable
  • Loss of appetite
  • Crying fits
  • Loss of temper
  • General disengagement and lack of energy

These symptons may describe most teenagers most of the time but look out if there is any noticeable increase or change in these behaviours!  It is also important to try and understand what is causing the stress.  Is it low motivation, lack of preparation, unrealistic expectations, competition from peers, pressure from parents or the school?   Encourage your children to set their own goals of what they want to achieve.

How can parents help their children manage stress?


  • Maintain a healthy, balanced diet
  • Drink lots of water
  • All food should be low in sugar, salt, fat, caffeine and refined carbs
  • Regular light meals


  • Improves thinking and concentration
  • Around 9 hours a night


  • Boosts energy levels, clears the mind, alleviates stress
  • Timetable in physical activities, going outside

 Revision techniques

  • ‘Learning how to learn’ – revision needs to be active
  • Help teach child revision techniques e.g. mind maps, note taking, post it notes, practice papers. See Blog – learning how to learn
  • Help them construct revision timetable, broken down into small tasks
  • Help them prioritise and divide up their time spent on each subject


  • Set realistic expectations – can only try your hardest
  • Keep things in perspective
  • Be supportive and encouraging rather than policing them
  • Reflective listening/ emotion coaching
  • Be flexible around chores, normal routines and responsibilities


  • Not to be used as bribes but to encourage
  • Frequent little breaks/treats to look forward to during revision period
  • Down time to unwind
  • Descriptive praise

 Relaxation techniques

  • Close your eyes and breathe slowly and deeply. Breathe out more slowly than you breathe in. Locate any areas of tension and try to relax those muscles –imagine the tension disappearing. Relax each part of the body – from your feet to the head. As you focus on each part of your body, think of warmth, heaviness and relaxation.
  • Yoga
  • Mediation/mindfulness
  • Massage
  • EFT tapping
  • Visualisation helps with self-confidence. The best athletes use this

Also take a look at ADT Healthcare who offer a free helpline dedicated to assisting families suffering from drug, alcohol and mental health issues.

A guide to ADHD and addiction

Learning revision techniques

It is not necessarily the hardest working or the brightest child/teen who will achieve the highest marks in exams.  How well a child does in school reflects their attitude and study methods as well as ability.  Parents and schools can give children the learning tools but then of course the child has to accept responsibility for their learning and be willing to put in the hard work.

4 key elements to success in school:

  • Knowing the subject matter
  • Organisational skills
  • Revision and exam technique
  • Attitude/mind-set

Since the summer is a time for many children to sit both public and school end of year exams, I want to focus on revision techniques.  Many children rely on revising by re-reading or highlighting their school notes or the text book.  This is quite boring and is not a very effective method since it ignores the way the mind works and does not require any understanding.  Memory needs to be treated like a muscle so that dull information can be stored.  Brains need a hook – picture, pattern, colour, story or connection with other memories.  The more interested the brain is, the easier it is for the information to go in and stay in!  The left side of the brain is used for thinking about words and numbers but we need to engage the right side during revision and ‘work’ to get information into the long term memory.

Most children feel bored, resentful and anxious during revision periods but it should be effective, interesting and enjoyable.  People learn in different ways so it’s about helping your child to find a method that suits them or changing the method so the brain remains alert.

Top Revision techniques:

Post it notes/flash cards

Key words or phrases on one side, definition/answer on the back.

My 15 year old son has been using a brilliant online resource to create flash cards


Mind maps


Summary page

Reduce and condense notes as much as possible until a whole topic is on one side of A4.  Practice reconstructing the sheet from memory.  This is a method I relied on studying for my history degree but mainly because no one had told me about other effective methods!!

Link to song/rhyme

Kids often have an amazing ability to memorise words to their favourite songs.  Encourage them to tap into this by making up a song with a catchy tune.

Record notes

Read out notes and listen to them in bed/ travelling to school

Teach others

Explaining out loud to parents or friends in their own words is a great way to secure and clarify understanding of a subject.  Ask questions to stimulate your child’s thinking.

Practice papers

It is absolutely essential for students to be familiar with the format and rehearse what they are required to do in the exam.  Move to completing papers under timed, exam conditions.

For GCSE & A level, all the exam boards have past papers on their websites

Also see where they are all in one place

The most effective way for children to learn material in the long run is to test themselves and try to retrieve material from their memory. Also planning ahead and not doing all the revision on one subject in a block before moving on to the next (distributed practice) helps to store the material in the long term memory.

Best of luck