In today’s world, exam stress is a major concern for parents, teachers and students. In a highly competitive world, pupils face greater exam stress and pressure than their parents did.
According to findings by UK-based social research psychologist Martyn Denscombe, there are four reasons teenagers suffer exam stress. The educational or occupational consequences associated with the outcome of the exam; their self-esteem with regards to the outcome of their grades (students with higher grades are likely to have a higher self esteem); being judged by friends and parents in relation to their performance; and fear of disappointing their teachers and parents.
With this pressure and fear of failure/disappointment ever present in a child’s mind, excessive anxiety can make it even harder for a student to focus on their exam and recall what they’ve learned. The human body’s evolutionary response to stress is to release large amounts of the stress hormone, cortisol. Unfortunately studies have shown that cortisol impairs the speed of memory retrieval, so the more anxious a child gets ahead of exams, the less likely they are to be able to absorb their work or retrieve it in the exam.
So how can you help your child manage exam stress?
- Help them with their study plan and encourage them to stick to it. An hour of work with a short break afterwards is ideal. Breaks allow the brain to absorb what it has learned.
- Ensure there are lots of healthy snacks in the fridge. The brain needs nutrient rich foods, lots of protein, fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds and water. Also have some dark chocolate to hand. Chocolate which is 70% cocoa has been shown to fight cortisol, stimulate the release of endorphins which fight stress and relax the body.
- Don’t let them skip meals. Eating 3 meals a day will help keep the cortisol levels at a natural level.
- Give them a good nutritional supplement. Stress weakens the immune system making your child more susceptible to colds, flu and other infections. Studies on students at exam time found they had fewer natural killer cells which fight viral infections than normal. They almost stopped producing immunity-boosting gamma interferon. Bio-Strath is an excellent supplement for exam time because not only does it support the immune system, it also improves memory and concentration and increases energy levels. Plus it’s natural so there are no stimulants to interfere with your child’s sleep (visit bio-strath.co.za for more information).
- Speaking of sleep, ensure they get enough sleep. There is 50% more cortisol in the blood of a person who sleeps six hours instead of the recommended eight hours.
- Exercise and play. Many students think it’s best to spend hours and days bent over their books and ignoring all their usual activities. In fact, it’s counterproductive. If they exercise or play a sport, encourage them to plan this time in to their studying or at the very least, get out for brisk walk or run every day. This exercise will enable their brains to focus on something else for a while, as well as increasing oxygen levels in the body leading to a feeling of being more energised and awake. If they want you to, join them in the exercise. It will give you time to connect and they will feel supported.
- Let them get it out. If your child needs to let off some steam, shout, yell and rant about how much work there is, why it’s all so unfair that they have to learn a whole year’s work for a two hour exam, let them. Acknowledge their feelings and emotions and once they have it out of their system, help them to get back on track and continue the revision.
- And most importantly, don’t load more pressure on them. They know you are hoping for them to do their best. They are aware of your expectations. Exam time is not the time to remind them of this or to push them any harder. If for some reason they haven’t put in the necessary leg work during the year, they are very aware of that too. But these few weeks are too late to do anything about it and increasing their stress levels now will only do more harm than good. Even if your intentions are good, remember that right now, for a stressed child, even a harmless joke about their upcoming results could be taken the wrong way. Your job right now is to diffuse the pressure on them by taking their exams in your even stride and showing them that exams are just another part of life. Reassure them that you are there if they need any help with revision or studying, and that these exams are not a life or death situation. Worst case scenario, they could repeat them if necessary.
Wishing you a stress-free exam time, for the whole family!