What is Exam Stress?: Tips for Parents and Teachers

June 3, 2024
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For parents and teachers of children taking exams and tests, whether it’s in school, college or university, exam stress can be a familiar topic. Students are under a lot of pressure to succeed from a young age and the fear of failure can cause intense anxiety. In this article, we’ll look at what exam stress is caused by, the symptoms of stress and how you can support a child during exam season.

What is Exam Stress?

Anyone who is preparing for tests and exams is likely to experience some level of stress, and this includes children and young adults in primary school, secondary school, college and university. Feeling some stress when taking exams is normal and it can actually help students to feel motivated to succeed. Too much stress, however, can cause problems and can negatively impact a child’s exam performance.

No matter if a child is 10, 16 or 21 – or whether they’re sitting exams for their SATs, GCSEs, A-Levels, BTEC, NVQs or university degree – exams can be a highly-charged time and their emotions are likely to be all over the place.

Not only does this cause stress for the students sitting the exams, but also for their parents, carers and teachers who want them to do their best and may worry on their behalf.

A child revising for an exam experiencing exam stress

Causes of Exam Stress

Exam stress can often be an internal pressure that students put on themselves because they want to do well and make their family and teachers proud.

However, exam stress is commonly also be caused by various other factors, including:

  • Pressure to succeed from family, friends and school.
  • Comparison with peers or siblings.
  • Fear of failure and not being good enough.
  • Previous bad experiences with exams.
  • Worry about the future.
  • Not being well-prepared or not feeling ready.
  • Having caring responsibilities that prevent time for revision.
  • Difficulties at home.
  • Existing physical or mental health problems.
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If you work in education, then having an understanding of child mental health is important to ensure you’re able to fully support the children you work with. Our online Child Mental Health Training will help you to develop this knowledge.

Exam Stress Symptoms

Below are some common indicators to look out for that suggest a child is stressed or anxious about upcoming exams. The child or young adult might:

  • Be negative, irritable, grumpy or snappy.
  • Worry a lot.
  • Feel down about the future or have negative thoughts about themselves.
  • Find it difficult to concentrate.
  • Lose interest in their usual hobbies.
  • Struggle to sleep well.
  • Start to eat more than usual, often sweets and junk food.
  • Drink more caffeine than usual, such as tea, coffee and energy drinks.
  • Struggle to finish a meal because they feel sick.
  • Have stomach ache, headache or muscle pains.
  • Feel unwell, nauseous and tired.

How to Reduce Stress and Anxiety During Exams

As a parent or teacher of someone taking exams, remember that all children and teenagers are different and so they’ll all approach their exams and revision in different ways. There is no ‘correct’ way to prepare for an exam – some children may choose to listen to music whilst they study and prefer to be alone, whilst others may benefit from a group revision session, for example.

A student experiencing stress over a mock exam

Here are some ways you can help your child to reduce stress and anxiety during their exams:

  1. Encourage them to talk about their work and their worries. Whether it’s a parent, teacher, tutor or friend, sharing concerns can help to keep things in perspective.
  2. Remind your child that anxiety is normal. Being nervous can actually help them to focus on doing their best. Not all anxiety is bad.
  3. Be supportive, reassuring and calm. Always give your child support and encouragement so they feel positive about their exams and know that you’re behind them no matter what. Avoid criticising or nagging your child to revise. Instead, tell them you’re proud, regardless of how their exams go.
  4. Increase your child’s motivation by helping them to prepare. For example, you could assist them to create a revision timetable or tidy their desk, remind them that you’re there to help at any time and discuss a reward for once the exams are over.
  5. Provide your child with a calm, comfortable place to revise. This could be a tidy desk in their bedroom but it could also be outside the house, such as at the library, a quiet study classroom or at a relative’s house where they don’t feel distracted.
  6. Ensure your child eats a balanced diet to help improve the way they feel and enhance their mental focus. Having a healthy breakfast before an exam is particularly important, as is avoiding too many foods high in fat, sugar and caffeine.
  7. Encourage a good sleep routine in the lead up to the exam season to help improve alertness and concentration. This might involve having an hour of screen-free time before bed, a calming bath or an evening walk. Most teenagers need 8-10 hours of sleep a night.
  8. Encourage regular exercise to relieve stress and increase energy. Whatever your child enjoys will help, whether it’s sport, running, walking or dancing.
  9. Be flexible with normal routines around exam time. Whilst your child is busy revising and preparing for their exams, don’t worry about letting normal chores and responsibilities slide whilst they focus on what’s important.
  10. Practise what it’s like to do an exam so the child knows what to expect. For example, many schools do mock exams under exam conditions. At home, you could do practise papers with your child and go through the answers together.
  11. Discourage last-minute revision. Cramming all night before an exam is unlikely to be helpful, as it’ll make your child tired and more panicked. Instead, ensure they have a realistic revision timetable ahead of the exam season and encourage a relaxing evening each night before an exam.
  12. Plan a reward for getting through revision and exams. Give your child a treat to look forward to for completing their revision schedule and sitting their exams. It could be a meal out with family, a trip to the cinema or their favourite chocolate bar. Choose something together that will help your child feel motivated and valued.
  13. On the day of the exam, be prepared. Help your child to get all the pens, pencils and equipment they’ll need for the exam ready, make sure they’ve had a proper breakfast and are well-hydrated, and check that they know where to go for the exam and at what time.
  14. After the exam, give your child time to talk about how it went. Listen carefully to them, without judgement, and avoid dwelling on mistakes they think they’ve made. Allow your child to talk about their concerns and congratulate them for a good effort, no matter the outcome.

Exam stress is common amongst children, teenagers and young adults in education. Revising for exams and sitting tests is a big part of growing up and there are often high expectations on students to succeed. However, with the right support, exam stress needn’t take over and, as a parent or teacher, you have an important role to play in encouraging children to reach their potential without it impacting their mental health.

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