Help your Child Deal with Exam Stress

Mark Maclaine

March 22, 2014

As the exam period approaches, parents can often notice their children getting more uptight, especially if they are sitting the all-important GCSEs, AS or A-Levels. Super-tutor Mark Maclaine provides his top tips for parents to alleviate exam stress. 

1. Permission to fail

When  children are stressed it is usually because they’re thinking more about the consequences of the exam than the actual exam itself. Sadly, I’m afraid just telling them not to think about the outcome will just make them think about it more! Many of the most successful and happiest students I’ve ever worked with have one thing in common. Their parents are focussed on hard work over grades. I often hear them saying things like “If you can honestly say that you have worked hard and tried your best, then we don’t care what the results are”.

Giving a child permission to fail, whilst emphasising the need for putting in the work, is one of the most powerful tools parents have in helping their children. This is also powerful in tutoring. When I’m training tutors I will tell them to congratulate students not for getting a question right, but for showing their working and trying their best. This lifts the focus away from getting questions right, and helps the student learn a valuable lesson - that making mistakes is a good way to learn and hard work pays off in the end.

2. Subconscious stress

Many of the students I work with who suffer from extreme exam stress are reacting to the, often unconscious, stress of their own parents. Many parents worry that if their son/daughter isn’t doing well at school then maybe the parents aren’t doing their job properly. Children are extremely good at picking up on this anxiety, no matter how well we think we are hiding it.

Be honest with your children. Let them know that although you do want them to do well, you will love them no matter what. Parents often assume their children know this, but when you listen to the stressed children this is may not be the case.

3. Don’t add to the stress

Find ways to reduce the amount of things children have to think about before exams, and don’t add to them by making threats. The last thing you want your child thinking about during an exam is losing the XBox, rather than focusing on the questions in the paper.



4. See stress as positive

Help your children understand what they are likely to be feeling just before an exam. Let them know that their heart rate will often rise and they may feel jittery. This is their body getting them ready for a challenge, and with increased heart rate their brain will be receiving more oxygen - which is a good thing. Recent scientific studies have shown that reframing stress in this way leads to dramatically more positive physiological effects on the body, and can actually help performance. Blood vessels open up and instead of being a hindrance, the stress children feel can be channelled positively.

5. Listen to your child

Let your child know that it’s normal to be worried, and that you yourself have been in this position too. Listening to concerns and genuinely empathising, putting yourself in the child’s position, serves to release some of the anxiety. This then allows the child to start opening up to new possibilities. Simply telling children not to stress can often make things worse as it can seem as if you are invalidating their feelings.

Ask them if they think there is a lot of pressure on them, and be prepared for them to say yes. Find out what they think will happen if they fail the exam. Listen to their concerns and work together to find ways to combat this together.

6. Use tools such as tutoring and exam preparation sensibly

Many children will be reassured by speaking to a tutor who has specialist knowledge of the exam they are about to sit. Just speaking to someone who can tell them exactly what challenges they are likely to face removes the fear of the unknown. But: the last thing you want to do is exhaust your child with too much preparation! A good tutor will tell you when the child is overloaded, and further lessons might actually be detrimental to performance.

If you or your child would like a tutor then why not book a tutor to come to your house from the Tutorfair website.