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Children stressed about exams? Here’s how to help them feel confident

7 minutes

From your child’s very first days in class, tests and exams are an integral part of school life. So how can you help them manage their time, reduce stress and increase their confidence to perform at the best of their ability?

  • Monitor stress levels and help children create their own study space
  • Encourage children to take time off from revision
  • But be wary of performance-related rewards

Don't let exam stress knock your child's confidence

In this article for LV= life insurance, Abigail Butcher talks to parents, teachers and experts to find out how you can help your children feel more confident about their exams.

Exams don’t just mean Common Entrance, GCSEs and A Levels; they come in a raft of forms throughout your child’s time at school and then university. And when we’re asked to help with maths homework, the revision we did at school can feel, let’s say, ‘rusty’.

In fact, often the best thing you can do to help your children cope is to help them reduce stress, and encourage and accept their own abilities, says occupational psychologist and work coach Dr Helen Nightingale.

‘Whether in exams, sport, work or play, a child must accept that trying a challenge is good, but also that we can’t all be good at everything, and that it’s good that everyone is different and has different abilities,’ says Helen.

Help them create their own way of working


Lisa Ost has two children – Sophie, 18, and Charlie, 15 – and is actively engaged in helping them work in their own ways, including using aids such as study planners and revision cards.

‘Sophie is incredibly conscientious, and one of the things we did to support her was create a separate space to study with a desk that she personalised with fairy lights and photos etc.,’ says Lisa. ‘She didn’t want to study in her bedroom or in the kitchen. I encouraged her to have breaks, good sleep and fresh air, as it’s impossible to work flat out.’

Tim Townsend, divorced father to twins Ethan and Harrison, said having separate homes within just 30 minutes of each other actually helped his teenagers, who are now at university.

‘Coming to my house for the weekend actually meant they had fewer distractions as their friends weren’t always on the doorstep,’ says Tim. ‘It became apparent that the two of them needed different help and spaces to study: while Ethan (by his own admission) needed more gentle persuasion, Harrison was naturally more motivated.’

 

Establish a balance


Children and teenagers can easily become very stressed about revising and performing well in exams, so it’s important to spot the signs. Stress symptoms in children include worrying excessively, intermittent headaches and stomach aches – but during exams there should be some pressure, says Helen.

‘A child must learn to cope; some stress is good. Avoidance of all stress is not helpful, so parents should set and manage the pace and give them coping strategies.’

You may find this applies whether your children are inclined to work too much or too little – but regardless of their ethic, one of the best ways a parent can help their children during exams is by finding a balance, says Emily Higgins, head of maths at a secondary school in Hampshire.

‘It is really important to help them get out of the house,’ says Emily. ‘Rewards are definitely a bonus, but I would suggest a favourite dinner or a trip out of the house if they have a good session revising rather than making it performance-related.

‘Suggesting a walk to clear their head or making them sit down to dinner with family can have a really positive affect on their mental state.’

If your children want to go on social media during their breaks, and they probably will, try to establish ground rules, as using social media could affect your child’s stress levels if not managed correctly.

What to avoid and who else can help


Perfectionism is never helpful, says Dr Nightingale.

‘Parents must help the child formulate a plan and a back-up plan if things don't go well, so they understand what they are facing is not the be-all and end-all – that there is always another way.’

Mock exams are a good way to gauge how your child will cope with the real thing, and to speak to teachers about how you can help if necessary.

Lisa Ost says she talked to her son Charlie, 15, several months before his mock GCSEs about when he needs to start revising, ‘but I definitely had to nudge him a little’.

Emily Higgins says teachers are always happy to talk to parents throughout the whole process.

‘There is probably a lot more going on at school to help prepare students than most parents realise,’ she says. ‘I would suggest getting in for parents’ evening and revision evenings to find out what is on offer.’

Above all, Emily advises, ‘don’t be too negative if they are struggling – be encouraging.’

The key to helping your child with their exams is providing the right support for them. But if you’re struggling, ask their school for any additional resources and advice to help you help them.