Managing Exam Stress

By sheilam |

Illustration depicting a green chalk board with the words 'exam stress' written on it in white chalk.

We have now reached that time of year when children and young people in both primary and secondary schools are facing assessments and exams.

The hope is that in primary schools these remain fairly low key, though from what some teachers and parents report that is not always the case – with some being relentlessly drilled for tests and even perhaps pressured by well-meaning adults about the need to do well.

Schools week reported recently that a quarter of Year 6 pupils are stressed about SATs – you can read the article here

It seems only reasonable to suggest that with the perceived greater importance of GCSE exams than earlier tests that this gets worse as children progress through school, which is indeed what surveys have found.

“The ChildLine National Exam Stress Survey revealed that 96% of the 1300 who completed the survey felt anxious about exams and revision, with 59% feeling pressure from their parents to do well and 64% saying they have never received any support in dealing with exams”.

You can read more about what young people have said by following the link below.

Sad little boy sitting face down on knees on white background

What can we do as parents and teachers to help children and young people cope with the stress of exams and testing

The role of a parent and teacher is clearly different but every adult working with or parenting children and teenagers has a duty to promote positive mental health and therefor at the very least to do no harm – i.e. not to  levels of stress about exams even more. So of the tips below some will be more appropriate for teachers or adults working in schools and others are more for parents.

  1. Get the basics right

It doesn’t matter what the source of stress might be the experience of it is worse when out general health is not good.

Make sure they get

enough sleep, teenagers have a tendency to become a bit nocturnal but sleep will have an impact on performance. So they need to be in bed by a reasonable hour if they need to get up for exams or to revise. If they go to bed and have trouble sleeping then work with them to develop strategies to make sure they can get a good nights sleep – there are some useful tips here  

a balanced diet – we know that our diet has an impact on our physical and mental performance so make sure they get plenty of fresh foods, with protein and fresh fruit and vegetables and try to avoid the tendency many develop of snacking on sugar laden processed food and drinks. You can read more here 

 some exercise when the pressure is on it is easy to feel like there isn’t time for exercise but it is not only good for our bodies’ evidence suggests it helps our brains as well – read more by clickingon the link below

Exercise is also known to reduce stress. It doesn’t need to be competitive or formal but making sure that children and young people get some exercise will help reduce stress and help them study more efficiently so even if if’s just a brisk walk or a short bike ride, kicking a ball about or running around with mates it will help and is worth making time for.


  1. Encourage Relaxation

However much there is to do it is important to take regular breaks and to building some time for relaxing. In fact studying is often more effective in short bursts. We have all probably experienced working for hours and feeling ourselves become unproductive. A break away from it even for a short time can renew our concentration and we can sustain working for a bit longer. Remember too that Mindfulness can be very useful for both relaxation AND improving concentration- you can read the earlier blog post about Mindfulness here. You can find specific tips on helping teenagers revise here 

 Motivate without Threats

While some students may need hefty doses of motivation they, in fact few of us, are rarely motivated by threats. These may be specific – I’ve heard people say they won’t get to go on holiday unless they work/succeed or much more general, the ‘you’ll never get a good job’ ‘you won’t get to go to University’ or whatever. In my years of experience as a teacher and as a parent honestly I’ve never seen this work.

But many do need some motivation so encourage them to think of the positives, remind them that any ‘sacrifices’ they do make (not going out with mates for a few evening s etc) will only be for a short time.

Lots of people offer rewards for success and I think that is a personal decision but generally speaking intrinsic rewards – that is the student working hard because they want to and they see value in it tend to be more effective. You can read more here


  1. Be Available and involved

adult and teenager talking

It is said a lot but simply being around giving time, for a cuppa and chat or a bit of encouragement can be really helpful. It certainly isn’t possible in every situation but getting involved by offering to ‘test’ them on what they have been revising or asking them how it’s going and where they are up to – is likely to be more supportive than nagging. But it is important to give advice and offer suggestions when asked or when you can see it is needed. It is also really useful to know the specific times, dates and requirements for each exam.  Read here about how to help them be successful in exams  


  1. Encourage them to talk

They may not all want to, but if you think they are worried or stressed do encourage them to talk about it – and try to get them to be specific – worries are easier to handle when you know exactly what the actual worry is. It’s also a good time to discuss plans – a good plan B can mean the fear of not achieving what they want is greatly reduced. But talking doesn’t have to be about big worries it can be just about how they are getting on, what bits they are finding tough but also what are they finding ok.


  1. Build resilience


Life can be full of hard knocks and one of the important things that needs to happen for every adult is that they need to learn to be resilient, to cope with those knocks and be defeated by them. Now is a great time to start. Make sure they know that while they are being encouraged and exhorted to try their best to put in the effort and to do well, they are of value anyway. If you are a parent make sure they know they will be loved whatever happens and if you work  in schools make sure they know that there are always other options and there will be people who will care and support them though whatever happens.


We need to remember as well that it is not just the children and teenagers that get stressed during exam time- it can be a stressful time for parents, especially if there is more than one child in the house sitting exams, and the focus on results means it is also stressful for school staff. So it is important to learn effective ways to manage your own stress to make sure you can keep on supporting the children and teenagers who need to rely on YOU. Click here to read an article that might help  – its all about making sure you look after yourself.










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