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Helping children deal with exam stress

14 May, 2012

Don’t offer extravagant gifts or big amounts of money for exam success. It can be an incentive – but it may also become an extra pressure.

“If I take Latin, I’ll increase my chances of getting into University.” These words were spoken not by an A Level student primed to fill out their UCAS form, but by a 12-year-old who was in the second year of her secondary education.

More recently, a Year 6 child, at just 10 years old, confessed that he was growing increasingly worried about his entrance exams.

After taking successive tests, he still had not secured a coveted place at any of the leading boys’ grammar schools. If you thought children’s worries only extended to choosing between their two favourite flavours of ice cream, you haven’t fully appreciated the academic demands placed on the average 21st century child.

Children take their first SATs tests in Year 2, and as these are some of the key indicators of a school’s performance there is an enormous amount of pressure on these pupils to achieve their very best. After three hours of test papers in English, Maths and Reading, children are left with an anxious wait to see the outcome of all their hard work. What makes the wait even more painful is the fact that schools are increasingly sharing levelling information and end of year expectations with both parents and children. This means that both groups will know if results are below average, average, or above average.

Although test results only relate to pupils’ educational progress, many children feel that lower than average test results reflect on them negatively, having a damaging effect on their self-esteem. Research conducted by Cambridge University, which questioned 750 pupils, parents, teachers and governors as part of a major two-year study on primary education, concluded that the government’s compulsory testing of 7 and 11-year- olds has left children feeling anxious and distorted the curriculum.

For secondary pupils, who are about to enter the work place or a higher educational institution of their choice, the pressure is even greater. If these teenagers don’t get the 5 G.C.S.E’s at A to C or meet their predicted grades at A Level, they may lose out on a college or university place and be forced to take on a different course of study or enter the clearing process. Research by the Children’s Commissioner, Dr Atkinson, has shown that 50% of pupils aged between 8 and 17 are concerned about their exam results:

Speaking at the North of England Education Conference in Blackpool, Dr Atkinson said: “At least half of them (pupils) worry about school work and the pressure of exams. And they outline pressure from home as well as school as part of that worry.”

Parents who want guidance on how to help their children through the stressful exam process can use the following tips from charity Relate for Parents:

  • The important thing is to stay calm. Maybe they need someone to shout at, and you need to be strong enough to take it. Tell yourself it is the stress talking!
  • Provide a suitable space for your child to work at revision, and allow them time to work free from distractions.
  • Avoid setting up expectations in your child that you know they will do well – better to tell them that you want them to do their best.
  • Provide small treats as they revise and do their exams. They will help your child to feel important and cared for. Their favourite food, new equipment for the exams, all help them to feel that you have noticed they are under a bit of pressure, and want to help them feel good. Don’t offer extravagant gifts or big amounts of money for exam success. It can be an incentive – but it may also become an extra pressure.
  • Other children not taking exams might not be so sympathetic to their ‘exam stressed’ sibling. They may feel jealous of the extra attention their brother/sister is getting because of their exams and start acting up. Try to explain it is just for a short while and try to do nice things with them to make sure they don’t feel forgotten.

In their Beating Exam Stress publication, leading UK children’s charity Childline also offers this invaluable piece of advice for any youngsters that feel overwhelmed by exam stress.

“There’s life beyond exam results. Disappointing grades are not the end of the world, even if it does feel that way at the time. You might decide to re-sit and in any case, there will be lots of other opportunities to express yourself and succeed later on in life.”