How to help your child get through the stress of exams

How to help your child get through the stress of exams

The best tips to support your child’s study habits and wellbeing during the upcoming exam season

Across the country children are already in meltdown. The fear of failure, the unfamiliarity of classroom spaces, exposure to ‘people’, the revision… There’s a lot going on at what is always a very stressful time anyway. So post-pandemic, how can you help your child through the stress of exams?

Teachers are reporting an all-time high in panic attacks, angry outbursts, self-harm, and disengagement

In the run-up to this year’s GCSEs and A-levels, a new report has unveiled a spike in levels of anxiety among pupils. Teachers are reporting an all-time high in panic attacks, angry outbursts, self-harm, and disengagement among students.

Acknowledging students’ heightened anxiety, particularly due to being the first cohort in three years to sit in-person exams, UK tutoring platform MyTutor has highlighted some tips from a world renowned educator and expert on teen learning. Professor Barbara Oakley shares her insights on top ways to support your overwhelmed teen preparing for exam season.

Encourage your teen to work ‘retrieval practices’ like flashcards into their study routine

The best way for teens to learn a new topic is through retrieval practise. “When you’re first learning something, there’s faint links forming between neurons in their brain,” Professor Oakley explains. “The more you retrieve that learning, the stronger the links become.”

Look over key learning areas before bed

The brain is hard at work even when we’re sleeping. Professor Oakley says that during sleep, “neurons are connecting.” So, telling your teen to glance over their notes right before bed for 2-5 minutes actually helps consolidate their learning.

Then when your teen is sleeping, by building “neural connections”, their brain will actually work to keep this new information in their memory.

Breaks are important for learning

Like sleep, breaks are important in making learning stick. Professor Oakley explained that short study breaks are vital for the part of the brain that stores new information. She says the best way to organise study time is by using the Pomodoro technique.

It’s really simple: you turn off all distractions, set a timer for 25 minutes of focused study, and have a 5-minute break once the timer goes off. That makes one Pomodoro round. Professor Oakley recommends doing three over the course of a study session.

She says it’s key for teens to avoid any focused activity in their break time – and that means they shouldn’t go on their phones where distractions might pop up. Staring into space or stroking the dog/cat are both good uses of break time. Having a snack and stretching works too.

Spacing out learning is better than cramming for hours

This might seem obvious, but we’ve all heard of someone we know who’s pulled an all-nighter: “Learning takes time,” Professor Oakley says, “just like a weightlifter developing their muscle, it takes time to build neural structure.”

Your teen needs time to learn from direct instruction (so from their notes, textbooks, teachers), and then they need to go back over what they’ve just learned. Ideally, all the way up to exams, they’d repeat this cycle: study from classroom learning, retrieval practice, study from classroom learning, retrieval practice, and so on…

Encourage them to study in different places

Studying in different places can help refresh your teen’s brain and boost their memory. So, if they normally study in their room, try giving them the option to set up shop in the kitchen, a quiet corner of the house, a library or even a cafe (if they don’t get distracted). They could try making mind maps in a noisier space, and keep the library for past paper practice. Having different places to travel to can also help motivate them too.

Slow learners can learn more deeply

There are two kinds of learners: declarative learners – or as Professor Oakley likes to call them – “race car learners,” and procedural or “hiker learners”. Declarative learners pick up things quickly, but they might be less flexible. Procedural learners take longer and are often more accurate.

Both fast and slow learners are just as good – one is not better than the other. But often in schools, fast learning is rewarded. If your teen is stuck on their homework, encourage them to take time to work it out. That’s where home learning can be so valuable – it’s where your teen can learn at their own pace, and go over things as many times as they need to until they get it.

Rewards for learning isn’t as bad as once thought

Professor Oakley explained to MyTutor how her daughter was not a big reader in school. To encourage her along, she would give her little rewards every time she finished reading a book. Over time, it was easier for her daughter to read and get into a book.

“She eventually became internally motivated,” Prof Oakley says. This is a perfect example of how starting with small rewards– like pocket money or a treat on the weekend (to get things going)– can help them get over their fear of difficult subjects and become more self-motivated in the long run.

Calm exam stress with breathing exercises

Breathing exercise for your child exam stress - article Silver Magazine

Take a minute to breathe…

As we all know, exams can bring on stress. Professor Oakley shared a useful tip for teens to use if they feel panicked when they’re revising or during an exam. It’s called ‘box breathing’ – you’ve probably heard about it, but have you shared it with your offspring?!

“When you get very nervous you do shallow, panicked breathing. It doesn’t give you the oxygen you need.”

She recommends teens to try breathing in for five seconds, holding for five seconds, and breathing out for five seconds. “When you get very nervous you do shallow, panicked breathing. It doesn’t give you the oxygen you need.” Practising this deep breathing technique a few days or even weeks before exams – so that it seems normal – is a great tool for your teen to use when it comes to sitting at the exam desk. If they feel panicked in the exam hall, using this technique can help them refocus and remember what they’ve revised too.

Help your teen reach out for support

There are times when they just need a helping hand from an expert. Whether that’s with a tutor (if their anxiety comes from learning gaps), or with a healthcare professional– there are people and organisations here to help teens.

Here are a few good resources to tap into, as recommended by the NHS:

Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS)
Kooth which delivers psychological support for teens
Mental health apps like BlueiceChill Panda – or there’s a fuller list of apps HERE

Exam Season Parenting: A Crash Course 
Need more help? To help parents help their children, MyTutor invites you to Exam Season Parenting, a free two-part parenting course 17-18 May, with Child & Adolescent Clinical Psychologist Dr Louise Egan.

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1 Comment

  1. My book, “How to be a Front Runner” is available on Amazon. It draws on tools and techniques from sport and positive psychology. I was a pioneering Olympic Sport Psychologist. The books helps build the mental skills children need to become motivated, confident and resilient.

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