Exam Stress – A hot topic

Parents and other family members of teenagers will be familiar with the pressure and stress that young people experience when they are facing exams at school. Many parents will have children sitting GCSE’s right now.

‘Exam stress’ describes the impact emotionally, physiologically, and behaviourally of impending exams.
There are lots of contributing factors to exam stress – pressure or perceived pressure to do well, fear of failing, lack of preparation and even previous negative experiences.

For young people who are already prone to feelings of anxiety, the experience of exams anxiety levels increasing to unmanageable levels.

Children with mental health conditions or special educational needs and those who find schoolwork a struggle, may be more likely to experience concerning levels of exam stress. It’s worth bearing in mind too that children whose parents have very high expectations for them or who are high achievers or overly perfectionist, can also be affected.

As children get older, academic anxiety and stress is likely to increase, although some primary school teachers report anxiety in their pupils too. Pressure around school exams during secondary education (including GCSEs, National 1-5s, Highers, A-Levels, or Advanced Highers), vocational qualifications (like BTECs or SVQs) and progression to higher education may cause anxiety in some pupils.

Explaining Stress

Stress is normal - it is a part of life.

There are three main types of stress, as identified by The Harvard Center for the Developing Child. They are: positive, tolerable and toxic.

  • Positive stress: some stress can be positive and even helpful for children and young people- providing motivation, developing coping skills and building resilience.
  • Tolerable stress: short term stress can be tolerated especially if young people have built resilience and have strong, supportive, adult relationships.
  • Toxic stress: stress become toxic when it is persistent and long-lasting and where there is a lack of protection from supportive, healthy adult relationships.

Spotting signs

Spotting the signs that academic stress is becoming too much can sometimes be difficult. Young people may not acknowledge how they or feeling, or feel able to talk about what they are experiencing.

Some of the signs to watch out for may include:

  • Reluctance to talk about tests and exams, or even attend school
  • Changes to sleeping or eating habits
  • Minor physical health issues – may include headaches and stomach ache
  • Unusual shifts in mood, may include withdrawal, anger or tearfulness
  • Obsessing over their work or even avoiding schoolwork.
  • Being overly self-critical
  • Working too much – not taking breaks and not being willing to stop

What parents and other family members can do

If you concerned about a child or young person, try and create the conditions to talk to them.

If you are at all concerned about the child’s safety, seek professional help and you could also speak to the safe guarding lead at your school.

Some things that might help:

  • Listen carefully to how the young person is feeling – don’t make assumptions, be patient and make sure they feel heard.
  • Ask how you can help – what do they think they need from you?
  • Encourage good self-care- taking care of themselves by eating the right kind of foods, drinking water and getting enough sleep.
  • Support exam preparation – you could offer to help create a study schedule.
  • Encourage study sessions with friends
  • Make sure the child knows that you are there to support and listen. No matter how they are feeling.

Watch this space for details of Youth Mental Health First Aid training, which we will be launching in September 2022.

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