Mrs Hanbury headmistress talking with students outside
  • Head's Blog

As exam season looms, stress levels among parents tend to rise. I put this down to one simple fact: loss of control. Up to this point you have had a lot of control over your child’s life experiences. You may have been able to protect and shield her from much unpleasantness: you have been her “fixer”. Now things are out of your control. You can’t take her exams for her and there are so many subjects to be covered (GCSE) or at such a level of complexity (A level) that you are unable to offer the same level of help that you could in the past.

For your own peace of mind as much as anything else, I recommend that you consider this the ideal opportunity to start “training” your children to cope with the stresses and strains of life.   Let’s do what we can as adults to give them a positive start: if they realise that they can cope and survive this period of anxiety, the next time will be easier for them.

So when your daughter comes to you (or locks herself in her room), full of worries about not knowing anything, here are some ways you can assist without trying to do it all yourself:

1. Send her to the experts: LEH is full of experts, the teachers, who can answer all your daughter’s questions and help her to understand things better. They are perfectly placed (and very willing) to help. If your daughter says she does not understand something, remind her about subject clinics and encourage her to attend one of these, or speak to her teacher. There is no need for her to struggle away on-line seeking to teach herself or, even worse, for you to employ a tutor to support her! All the support she could want is here in school.

2. Ensure she has a quiet and comfortable place to study at home, where she will not be disturbed. Encourage her use this space only when she is working, she should always relax elsewhere. The brain is good at spotting patterns, and knowing that this room and this desk is where work goes on, means that her brain is already in that mode before she even starts studying. Mixing it up with relaxing space (or indeed sleeping space), means that her brain won’t know which to focus on when she’s there.

3. Encourage her to produce a sensible Revision Plan (RP) and take an interest in this (if she will let you!). A good revision timetable takes into consideration:

  • the number of subjects and topics to be covered;
  • the amount of time between now and the exam;
  • the need for guilt-free fun and relaxation throughout.

If you think your daughter’s RP isn’t complete or appropriate, remind her that teachers are always here to advise on improvements.

The benefits of guilt-free down-time should not be under-estimated. In order for these to work, they must be part of the bigger picture of a good RP. After a morning and afternoon of productive revision, an evening off is the best third section of the day. Or after two or three days of work, having a whole day off is a great idea. The key is that these periods of down-time are genuinely guilt-free because your daughter (and you) know she has worked hard before this and will continue to work hard afterwards. (Extra tip: don’t interfere with these times or try to change them. If the RP is in place, messing it up may be stressful for your daughter).

4. Physical exercise and fresh air are fabulous brain-feeders. You can do something positive by ensuring that these feature in your daughter’s periods of guilt-free relaxation. Plan a family picnic which includes a good long walk in the park or countryside; take all your children to the pool for a swim; go for a day-trip to the seaside one Sunday and play rounders on the beach. Making these whole family events will “require” your daughter to join in.

5. Remind your daughter that a certain degree of stress is entirely normal and indeed can be very positive. Stress is designed to increase our stamina and make us more alert, so experiencing the physical changes of stress before or during an exam can actually make us feel more motivated, more alert, confident and enthusiastic. Please see point 10 if things seem worse.

6. Encourage your daughter to keep up her non-academic pastimes. The natural tendency to assume that she should give everything up in order to concentrate on exam prep is frequently counter-productive. Your brain works best when it has variety and this is most easily achieved by continuing to practice the piano, play lacrosse, go rowing, turn up for lunchtime clubs.

7. Do all you can to ensure she gets a good night’s sleep – my views on this are well-known. If you feel the need to be strict about one thing, then this is it: get her away from computers, iPads and phones at least 90 minutes before she goes to bed. Good pre-sleep activities are those which do not require massive concentration and enable your brain to relax.

  • Get her reading some of her old favourites, from Enid Blyton to Agatha Christie, these easy reads really do help relaxation.
  • Play cards or a board game as a family (probably best not choose Monopoly)
  • Have a jigsaw on the go permanently during the exam period, that she can turn to at any time (it may help you to relax too)
  • Perhaps surprisingly, watch TV (maybe not a thriller!)

8. A daily checklist for use during the exam period removes all worries about forgetting anything, whether it is the exam start time, or the correct equipment required for each exam. You might even be allowed to go through this methodically with her every evening in preparation for the next day:

  • Check the exam timetable for timing of the exams the following day: morning or afternoon.
  • Tick off all equipment that she should take especially when it may include more than just pens and pencils.
  • Put water and tissues ready in her pack.
  • Plan what enjoyable relaxation she will do at the end of the day, to relax and unwind.

9. A wise Head of Year 11 used to say to parents at this time: “Your place over the next few months is in the wrong – all the time, about everything – so get used to it!”  This always elicited a laugh but isn’t always a laughing matter. Stress can feel like a communicable disease which spreads across the whole family, so:

  • don’t forget your other children – or your partner! They may begin to play up to get your attention and this will certainly make matters worse;
  • don’t forget your own need to de-stress. You may not need a revision timetable, but you may benefit from a relaxation timetable;
  • try not to rise to the bait which exam-focused children may throw your way. It’s not unusual to respond to stress via a full-on row with their nearest and dearest. If you decide to indulge them in this, just make sure that they are the only ones who are really out of control;
  • try not to lose your sense of humour.....hard, I know.

10. It is rare, but there are students for whom the stress of exams is extreme. It is important that we keep a sense of perspective and recognise “normal” stress; it is also important that we spot any signs of it becoming abnormal:

  • physical effects such as headaches, dizziness and stomach upset;
  • being so preoccupied with thoughts of exams that relaxation seems impossible;
  • becoming withdrawn from friends, family and hobbies;
  • constant tiredness due to problems sleeping;
  • loss of appetite or its opposite: over-eating;
  • seeing only the negative side of things;
  • becoming more aggressive and short-tempered with family and friends.

All children can demonstrate some of these symptoms from time-to-time, so one event does not turn healthy stress into problem stress and we want to avoid medicalising anxiety which will pass naturally. If you are genuinely worried, then you should seek the advice of your GP.

We know that our UV and UVI students are very well-prepared for their exams by their teachers. We also know that they are focused and determined young women who want to achieve their best. We can keep reminding them we know this; we also want the best for them but, in the end, if it all goes horribly wrong it won’t change one single thing about how much we love them.

By Mrs Hanbury - Head Mistress of LEH School


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