Family & Education

How to shepherd your children through exams

We can help students to manage their stress


I vividly remember sitting in the exam room and those feelings of anxiety, and nervousness. The conflicting babble from peers of “I haven’t revised anything” (yeah sure!), “I’m going to fail”, “My parents are going to be so angry”, “I’m quite confident for this paper” and the deafening silence of those too overwhelmed to join in the pre-exam chorus, which stressed me out even more. 

Even thinking about it, I can feel my heart pounding faster, my stomach starting to knot and my anxiety rising.

The reality is that our children have exams. Some of them will thrive and excel and for others it is about surviving. This can be hard as adults to shepherd, but perhaps reflecting on our role as parents, educators and emotionally available adults we can help our children navigate a journey that makes them feel good about themselves, regardless of the numbers and letters written on the piece of paper that they receive some months later.

Stress and anxiety are normal human responses, experienced through thoughts, feelings and physical sensations. Anxiety can affect one’s ability to concentrate, impair attention span and therefore affect revision and learning abilities. 

The Harvard Centre for the Developing Child identifies three main types of stress: positive, tolerable and toxic. Helping our students to understand that not all stress is bad can help. By understanding that our brains release high levels of cortisol (stress hormones) when we are highly anxious, and can cloud the way we think, can help them to appreciate the importance of trying to stay as calm as they can during the exam period.

As adults, many of us do not know how to help our children revise and therefore feel inadequate and that parenting is constant nagging and resistance. No wonder the stress is reaching parents as well.

However, it is important to reflect that adrenaline and cortisol are contagious. So, we need to notice and manage our own stress in order to be able to effectively support our children.

The best help a parent can give is to provide a calm, helpful and supportive environment. Be available to listen and willing to put things into perspective. Very few students do not want to succeed. They may present in ways that make you question this, but it is important to remember that behaviour is a form of communication.

Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that their refusal to revise, the shouting or the apathy, is a way for them to communicate that they are overwhelmed, anxious or don’t know where to start. It may not be defiance for defiance’s sake.

Most children need someone that can listen (more than talk) with empathy and without judgment. Rewarding effort rather than results encourages them to achieve their personal potential and can be done by celebrating the small victories along the way that can help them redefine the definition of success.

Together, create a sustainable revision timetable with short sessions and focus on subjects they are less confident on. This can enable them to achieve realistic goals, which in turn can boost their self-esteem and encourage them to work effectively.

Practising meditation and mindfulness has been shown to improve focus and decrease anxiety. By engaging with friends and hobbies or a brisk ten-minute walk between revision sessions can help improve concentration and energy levels.

As responsible adults we can be good examples to our children by doing these too and at times together.

Exams can be stressful, but the results and the journey don’t need to define our children or our parenting. By focusing on the areas we can control and acknowledging the parts we can’t, we can help our children, and our relationship with them, not only survive but even at times hopefully thrive.

Jessica Overlander-Kaye is wellbeing manager at PaJeS

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