Final year exams – it’s just a two-week period in a student’s life, but it’s a time that can create an enormous amount of stress for students, and consequently the whole family.
So why does a fortnight of exams become so stressful? What impact does this have on performance and wellbeing? And what can parents do to help put their child at ease?
Stress is a normal part of human existence; we are built for fight or flight when we encounter stressful situations.
But some find it harder to cope with pressure than others – and research shows that for those people, stress can have a detrimental effect on performance and participation in school.
Studies show that stress can affect memory by increasing cognitive load. This reduces our effectiveness in storing ideas, which means some students will struggle to perform at their best during exams.
For others, the stress is so great that they are unable to attend school or even participate in exams.
Research suggest that the high stress comes from:
overblown importance placed on exams by students, teachers and parents;
students’ belief that they don’t have the resources, such as effective study skills or knowledge of their subjects, to cope with the exam process;
concerns around getting into university and pressure to get a job.
These beliefs need to be challenged.
Exams do not define a person’s whole future, they are just one event in a student’s life. Instead of looking at stress as threatening, research shows that we need to view it as a helpful way to take control of a problem.
But this is perhaps easier said than done. So here’s a guide for parents on how to help their child cope with, and take control of, exam stress.
Reiterate that it’s normal to feel stressed
Stress is normal when we engage in something challenging. We feel stress because we are vulnerable that we may not perform well. Teach your child that this uncomfortable feeling is good because it means you are challenging yourself.
Don’t protect them from the challenge, or make the stress abnormal, or they’ll think it is something to fear.
Ask them how they feel, listen and encourage, but help them to see challenge as a good thing.
Tell them not to fear failure
Your child can feel like if they don’t succeed at this then it means their whole life is a failure. They need to know there is not one perfect plan but there are multiple pathways to success.
Failure (or not getting exactly what you want) is a normal part of life. Great success incorporates great failure. Failure is an event that provides us with choices; it is not who we are.
Try to distract them from overthinking problems
When a young person is stressed they will go over and over an idea in their mind. In some ways it is comforting to party with the idea, but it just makes it grow into a bigger problem.
When we feed negative thoughts they hang around and grow. Actually doing something your enjoy or working through the thing you are thinking about is the best distraction for worrying thoughts.
Understand how they like to work
Everyone learns differently. Work out the most effective environment for your child. Do they like to be alone or study with friends? They may be a visual learner and use lots of pictures, or a verbal learner and need to talk through ideas.
Study can be more effective when you space it out over time. So take a three-hour study session and add a five-minute break every 30 minutes to improve your productivity.