This week thousands of children went into the exam season - including my daughter starting her GCSE exams and Ann’s daughter sitting Advanced Placement tests in the US. They will be followed by thousands more who will be set end of year exams after the half term holiday.
Just as social restrictions are lifting, many of these kids will be busy studying and revising, and many of them will be worrying, fretting, and stressing. Of course, some of them will not be focussed on preparing themselves, which means their parents will be worrying, fretting and stressing! This blog applies to children and adults alike.
Exams make almost every single child anxious at some level. From the students who put on a convincing show of being uninterested to the ones who take exams seriously but seem unflappable and serene on the day, they are experiencing some level of concern or distress as exam day dawns and they file into the empty echoing hall or click on the link and hear ‘turn your paper over and start now’.
And once that’s over, the next phase of worry begins as the nerves that come down the line, waiting for results. Did you pull it off? Have you wasted your chance? How did everyone else get on? What will it all mean?
As loving parents, we struggle to see our children feeling anxious. We know just what an unpleasant, uncomfortable and unhelpful feeling it is and their anxiety quickly makes us feel anxious too!
In an attempt to soothe our children, and therefore ourselves, we say things like ‘there’s nothing to be worried about’, ‘just try hard and it will be fine’, ‘everyone’s in the same boat’ and ‘take a big breath and go in and focus’.
We’re right to try to ease their nerves. If their anxiety level gets too high, the cognitive part of their brain will become significantly less efficient, and our child won’t be able to remember or think clearly.
If you have ever asked your child whether this approach works, you know that the responses are pretty interesting!
Invariably they realise that our soothing attempts don’t help. And according to Neuro Linguistic Programming using words like ‘try’ and ‘hard’ instantly confirm any impression that the exam will be difficult and our children are likely to struggle.
Although there may be something in our body language or tone that reassures our children a little, these type of responses don’t help kids feel less stressed or nervous, and instead they make them feel more isolated and less understood – both of which increases the stress and worry.
If you have a child who gets nervous about exams, you can help them learn to recognise and manage their worries, not just about exams but about other challenges ahead.
Here are our top tips that have helped our children work their way through the array of end of year, entrance and 7+, 8+, 11+, 13+, GCSEs, A Levels, Pre-Us, SATs, ACTs, and first year uni exams!
Explain that the human brain was designed for threat detection.
150,000 years ago our brains allowed us to recognise that we might get eaten at any moment. The same thing happens to us today, and when we detect a threat, chemicals are released into our body so we’re ready to fight, flight or freeze. These chemicals divert blood to our muscles away from our digestive system, narrow our field of vision, and increase our breathing and heart rate.
Today we often detect a threat in something we don’t have to fight or run away from, but the body’s physiological response is the same whether we’re faced with a lion on our doorstep or a maths exam on the desk in front of us. The release of these chemicals makes our body feel very uncomfortable (a dry mouth, butterflies in the stomach, a thumping chest).
Discuss how these physical feelings have the potential to make us perform at our highest level.
Children understand these feelings, and when you give them the additional information about where they come from you are helping your child be in the driving seat. These stress chemicals that flood our body can actually focus our attention and motivation. It just depends on your interpretation! Top athletes welcome these feelings, despite it being physically uncomfortable, as they accept that these feelings will drive their performance. Whether it’s Usain Bolt, Roger Federer, or Jessica Ennis-Hill, they expect and accept these feelings as helpful, not as a problem.
Feeling anxious before an exam is all about worrying about something that might happen in the future.
Our brain is telling us stories such as:
‘I might fail the exam and I won’t get the grade I need.’
‘I won’t get into my preferred school.’
‘Mum and Dad will be cross with my performance.’
‘All my friends will do better and I’m going to look dumb.’
If a child had to sit an exam knowing it would never be marked and it would go straight in the bin, it’s unlikely anyone would feel anxious. It’s the possible negative implications for their future that create the stress. These thoughts can rapidly escalate unless we become aware of them, and challenge them to be more realistic, and therefore less scary.
Talk about how to get their brain working for them, rather than against them.
In her books, Tamar Chansky talks about our Smart Brain and our Worry Brain. When we are calm and concentrating, we work with our Smart Brain. But our Worry Brain is always on the lookout for problems and gets very loud and active as it works out all the horrible possible outcomes.
With practice, children (and adults!) can learn to talk back to their Worry Brain. It’s not about getting angry with this part of ourselves, it’s about putting things back into perspective.
‘I hear you Worry Brain, back in your box now, it’s not true and you’re not helping me, these thoughts are distracting and tricking me!’
The Worry Brain focuses on Feelings, Outcomes and What If’s. When your child is calm, help them prepare and write down some counter-arguments based on Facts, Probabilities and What Else’s.
Feelings - I feel scared
Fact - I’ve tried hard and done plenty of work
Outcome – I won’t have a school to go to if I fail
Probability - it’s 95% likely that I will get the marks I need
What If - I’m bottom of the year
What Elses - I can figure out what I didn’t know and then revise harder or smarter next time
Each time their Worry Brain tries to take over, your child can take this piece of paper and read through the counter-arguments to prompt their Smart Brain back into action.
Practice using their body and senses to help soothe racing thoughts and nerves.
In the lead-up to exams, spend some time before bed practicing breathing. When we take a big breath in through our nose, hold for the count of 2 and then exhale through our mouths for a count of 6, we re-set our body from ‘ready for action’ mode to ‘rest and digest’ mode. Normally 3 to 5 long breaths out will achieve this.
You need to practice this for at least a week or two so that, as your child starts to feel anxious on the day or the evening before, they can automatically go into their breathing exercises. We would also do our breathing exercises on the walk to school, for an exam or test, or interview.
And don’t forget that smell is the most sensitive of our senses, and goes directly to our Worry Brain. It’s an ancient protection to stop us poisoning ourselves! Find a smell that your child finds familiar and comforting – it maybe perfume or aftershave, or a particular laundry detergent or lavender spray. Spritz this onto a handkerchief so your child can take a quick sniff if they start to feel anxious.
Talk directly to their feelings so they feel understood.
When your child tells you they feel nervous, or you can tell they are nervous because of the way they’re behaving, acknowledge their feelings.
‘I remember feeling butterflies in my stomach when I sat exams when I was a child …. it’s an uncomfortable feeling isn’t it’.
‘I know you want to do well, so it’s not surprising your body is preparing you for something important’.
‘Those butterflies are reminding you that you’re about to do something you’ve never done before. They’re there to help you.”
You don’t need to take on your child’s anxiety or deny that they feel it or try to fix it. Your calm acknowledgement will make them feel connected with you and a bit safer.
As they leave you to go into school, rather than saying ‘do your best’ (which every child is likely to try to do, whether you say it or not!), say ‘Enjoy’ or ‘Have Fun’ because this primes them to re-frame their sensations from fear to excitement.
To find out more, join us for our ‘Recognising and Responding to Anxiety’ workshop on Thursday 20th May at 8pm .