How to Survive the Exam Season
As the exam season rapidly approaches for Year 11 and Year 13 students across the country, our own UVs are already on exam leave, and in some households, stress levels are rising and nerves fraying. This may not be the first time the students have coped with anxiety, and we certainly know that it will not be the last. Rather than becoming ever more anxious ourselves, let’s look upon this period as the ideal opportunity to start “training” our teenagers 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.
Here are a few lessons I’ve learnt over 20 years of helping students (and their parents) through this challenging time.
Lesson one: stress is not always a bad thing. We are all familiar with the feeling of stress or fear: stress hormones increase our heart rate, our muscles tighten and our breath quickens. This increases our stamina and makes us more alert so these changes before or during an exam can actually make us feel more motivated, more alert, confident and enthusiastic. Riding a roller coaster is a good example: our body goes into exactly the same stress mode when we are on the ride, and for most people this is what makes it so exhilarating and exciting!
Stress can become a problem if it is too extreme or lasts for a long period of time, with no relief. Feeling permanently tense, nervous and anxious is unpleasant for the sufferer, and indeed for those around them. If you notice more regular signs of aggression or panic in your daughter, this might give you pause for thought. Severe or prolonged stress can impair concentration and make things worse, but over-reacting to normal stress might reinforce it unhelpfully. So it is important to be able to differentiate between acceptable and unacceptable levels of stress.
Symptoms of excessive stress include the following:
- physical effects such as headaches, dizziness and stomach upset;
- a preoccupation with thoughts of exams making it impossible to relax;
- withdrawing 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.
Your children may well demonstrate some of these symptoms from time-to-time, so it is important to keep a sense of perspective: one event does not turn healthy stress into problem stress.
In order to minimise exam anxiety, there are many things young people can do. LEH students are taken through these steps in school and are all aware of how to prepare well for revision and for exams. You may be able to help – or you may find your help is shunned (“what would you know about it, you’re only mum/dad?”).
Feeling prepared and organised can reduce stress. All LEH students should have produced a sensible revision timetable which takes into consideration the number of subjects and topics to be covered, the amount of time between now and the exam, and required rest periods (very important). It is never too late to talk to teachers about revision timetables, so you can encourage your daughter to do this if you think she hasn’t got it sorted out yet.
Lesson two: During the exam period time, students need a healthy balance between studying and not studying. Keeping up with hobbies and other activities is a really good way to relax and unwind between periods of working. It is vital to have time away from all thoughts of exams and revision; this real rest for the brain makes the revision sessions much more productive.
Short study bouts of 20-30 minutes, with a 5-minute break between, enable the brain to take more in. Long periods of continuous study are counterproductive and it becomes increasingly difficult to concentrate productively. During these regular breaks, physical exercise is a really good idea – even if it’s just running up and down the stairs several times. Or putting on headphones and dancing energetically to loud music (probably best done in private!) This really reduces anxiety levels.
Lesson three: SLEEP – you know my views on this: regular bedtime, no late night working and plenty of sleep is probably the most important way to improve concentration and performance.
Teachers are always here in school to help the girls, even when they are on exam leave. Please encourage your daughter to seek help if she gets stuck on anything. She should drop her teacher an email, telling them what it is she wants to go over. She can then find out when the teacher will be free to meet. This way the teacher will be prepared and time won’t be wasted.
Lesson four: And finally, about you!
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 bit of a laugh, but it isn’t always a laughing matter; stress can be a communicable disease and the whole family may catch it from one examinee. 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 really hard not to rise to the bait which your examination-bound children will throw your way. Sometimes the best way to beat stress in their minds will be a full-on row with their nearest and dearest. And if you decide to indulge them in this, just make sure that they are the only ones who are really out of control. And keep younger siblings out of the way!
- try not to lose your sense of humour ..... hard, I know.