A couple of years ago I did some exam invigilating at a Wigan school. The school was very well organised and all the exams ran smoothly. They invested a lot of time in making sure that all pupils got the chance to practice going into the exam halls and sitting an exam paper well before their final exams in summer. However, there are still some pupils for whom sitting an exam is a traumatic experience. Children who get so overwhelmed by exam anxiety and negative emotions that they aren’t able to perform at their best on the day.
What is exam anxiety?
Exam anxiety, sometimes called test anxiety, is caused by the triggering of the stress response, also known as the fight or flight response. In the case of students sitting exams, the body and mind respond as if the danger (the exam) is a life or death situation. This overreaction causes uncomfortable symptoms such as shortness of breath, headaches, upset stomach, feelings of fear, racing thoughts, blanking out and panic attacks.
The truth is that some anxiety or stress before an exam is fine. Beneficial stress, sometimes called eustress, helps to keep us focused and alert, but when pupils are overwhelmed by their thoughts and feelings it can impact on their exam performance. Research shows that pupils who struggle with exam anxiety can score about 12 percentile points lower than other pupils.
If you are a parent of a child taking exams this year I’ve outlined below 4 ways that you can help them reduce negative and unwanted feelings and go into their exams feeling calmer, more confident and more self-assured.
Help them to get organised
Developing good organisational and time management skills is essential for any young person as they move into adulthood. As they take on more responsibility for their own learning or perhaps start employment or an apprenticeship, those skills are going to help them feel that they are more in control and so less likely to feel stressed. There are lots of systems and tools for increasing efficiency, such as Getting Things Done by David Allen, and it’s important that you work with your child to help them to utilise them.
Some young people might not see the benefits of organising and planning initially or might find it too difficult. There are some helpful tips on managing your time from Kent University. I have also found it helpful to use software tools such as Microsoft Outlook which has some great calendar and “things to do” facilities that many people simply don’t make the most of. Another really good tool is Evernote which is a note-taking app that can be synced across computers, phones and tablets.
Help them to be positive
Worry about an exam, or the outcome of an exam, is likely to lead to feelings of anxiety. If a pupil goes into an exam hall feeling anxious they are not going to perform as well as they would hope to. The first thing you can do to help your son or daughter is to make sure they keep everything in perspective. Having worked previously in careers guidance for many years I know that exam results, whether at GCSE or A level, are not life or death situations or the “be all and end all”. As a parent you can help by focusing on the positive, building their self-esteem and celebrating their efforts. Make sure they get some good careers advice about their future and they have explored a range of options depending on their results.
I explain to my hypnotherapy clients that the act of worry can be thought of as “negative self-hypnosis”. When we worry we visualise ourselves as not being able cope with the situation we are trying to deal with. This naturally leads us to deal with the situation badly. These negative autosuggestions become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we give ourselves suggestions that we can cope, that we can be calm, that we can focus on the exam paper we can start to become more positive about the outcome and our ability to handle the situation.
Hypnosis is a great way of helping to tap into our creative and imaginative nature, but it is easy to help your child create positive visualisations without using hypnosis. Just as an athlete might use positive visualisations to improve sporting performance, your son or daughter can use them to be better prepared for their exam.
- Find a quiet space with your child and make sure you won’t be disturbed for 5 minutes
- Ask them to close their eyes and make themselves comfortable
- Ask them to imagine they are in a cinema watching a film of themselves doing their exams. Ask them to imagine themselves as they wish to be; calm, composed, relaxed, focused, alert, motivated etc. Ask them to make the scene as vivid and lifelike as they can. Help them to become aware of what clothes they are wearing, the temperature of the room, how many people are in the exam hall, which teachers are there etc
- Then ask them to walk into the screen and see the scene through their own eyes, as if they are actually there. Help them to feel the positive emotions they would have, to visualise themselves holding the pen and completing the paper etc
- Finally, when they are ready let them hold onto those wonderful feelings and then have them open their eyes
Build this simple process into their exam preparations and they will start to feel more positive and relaxed about their exams.
Help them to let off steam
When the stress response is triggered our body is flooded with hormones that are preparing us for an action – run or fight. When the body doesn’t fulfil one of those actions the hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, stay in our system. This leads to ongoing feelings of stress or anxiety, and in the long term can lead to chronic stress. To help your child reduce their anxiety you need to regularly get them away from their revision and moving around.
Research shows that aerobic exercise, using large muscles groups to make the heart and lungs work harder, has the greatest impact on reducing cortisol levels. There are lots of fun things children can do to let off some steam, reduce their anxiety levels and help them to feel more ready to tackle the next exam. It could be an organised activity such as football, rugby or dance lessons or fun past times such as skating, cycling or a game of badminton. Why not join them and reduce your own stress levels at the same time?
Help them to relax
The opposite of the stress response is the relaxation response, which is known to reduce stress levels, increase energy, reduce tiredness, increase motivation and increase productivity. When working with clients I help them to create a deep relaxation through hypnosis, but there are lots of simple techniques to achieve a pleasant level of relaxation. In his book The Relaxation Response Dr Herbert Benson describes a very simple process that you can follow and practice with your child:
- Make yourself comfortable in a quiet room
- Close your eyes
- Starting at your feet and working your way up to your head, imagine each muscle, in turn, relaxing deeply
- Breathe through your nose and with each breath out silently say the word “one”
- Continue for 10 to 20 minutes. Once you’ve finished sit quietly for a few moments and then open your eyes
- Throughout the exercise don’t try to relax or worry how relaxed you are. Maintain a passive attitude and just allow relaxation to happen at its own pace.