Exam Pressure

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Type of Resource

Guidance

Publication Date

September 20, 2023

Topic/s

Digital Wellbeing 

Exam time can be challenging for children and young people, and even their families and those who support them.

It can see young people face pressure to stick with strict revision timetables to achieve their best in upcoming exams. Many young people report being overwhelmed by the pressure of doing well in their exams.

Because families operate as emotional units, stress can create a ripple effect, which can impact on other family members.

Practical Tips for Support Young People Through Exams

The need to create a revision timetable is often misinterpreted by young people to mean that they have to revise at every given moment, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Young people need adequate sleep and social time to recharge and relax.

You can support them to manage their time for exam preparation, and use the opportunity to build life skills, such as time management and organisation skills.

  • Creating a revision timetable based on exam needs will give young people a sense of control and perspective. But support young people to make realistic goals – nobody can revise 12 topics in one day.
  • Make sure to schedule in social media/gaming and social time for activities. Often young people falsely assume all their time should be spent studying, but this can lead to more stress and burn out.
  • Two hours of high-quality focused revision per day is worth a lot more than four hours of unfocused revision and procrastination – using timers can help maintain focus.
  • Schedule revision for peak times when a young person is more alert and engaged- if they’re not a morning person, it’s unlikely they will benefit from an early morning study session.
  • Scheduling reward times after blocks of revision can provide an incentive to study and emphasises the benefit of short-term sacrifice for long term gain – this is a key lesson for young people in your care.
Stress affects young people in different ways. Some rise to the challenge and others can be overcome by anxiety and worry. It’s easy to dismiss exam pressure and worries by telling young people it will be fine. This can help us feel better for giving advice, but the risk here is that we may be ignoring the real feelings of young people.
  • Asking open questions about what young people are worried about gives them the chance to air any problems, worries or stresses they have. It gives you a chance to reassure them and boost their self-esteem.
  • Paying attention to feelings and worries of failure, disappointment and pressure is key to helping young people cope and to feel heard. Never underestimate the impact your love and support can have in helping them tolerate stress.
  • Inability to sleep/eat/socialise.
  • Uncontrollable feelings of anxiety/anger/stress and worry.
  • Panic attacks and emotional outbursts.
  • Self-harm behaviours or suicide ideation.
  • Violent behaviour to adults or other children.
  • Reliance on alcohol and other drugs.
Online, you’ll find lots of ways on how young people can cope with exam stress, but little attention is given to ‘how not to cope’. Keep in mind that anxiety can sometimes cause avoidance, where a young person puts off something because it’s worrying them, causing more anxiety as exams approach.
  • Some young people/adults will reach for energy drinks or coffee for that extra push and focus. This may help them stay alert, but can have detrimental effects on sleep, mood, and appetite, not to mention caffeine’s potent ability to provoke anxiety and disrupt our ability to process and learn information. Remember, caffeine is a habit-forming drug. Stick to water or diluting juice.
  • You might be well aware of a young person’s tendency to work hard. Sometimes with added anxiety this can be ramped up, where they focus all their energy on exam preparation at the expense of their social life, sleep or well needed down-time. This can be unhealthy, so support them to get the balance right.
  • Holding ourselves to high standards can produce great results, but too much self- pressure in the form of negative self-talk can lead to demotivation and a loss of energy and concentration. Encouraging young people to think of positive statements that they can repeat can help e.g. ‘I can do this, and everything will be OK, I believe in myself’.

The importance of sleep for cognitive performance cannot be overstated. It’s thought that when we sleep, our brains process information to create memories, a vital function when learning and retaining information.

  • Revising late at night can impact our sleep patterns, especially if using screens. Remember, blue light from screens can disrupt our sleep and strain our eyes.
  • Studies have found that those who sleep longer the night before an exam perform better, suggesting that sleep is more important than last minute cramming before and exam.
  • The NHS recommend that young people get between 9-10 hours of sleep per night.

Exercise has many benefits to our physical and mental health. Being outside in the fresh air will also boost energy levels and help young people’s ability to focus. Even just 15 to 20 minutes of moderate physical activity a day will make a huge difference!

  • Exercise releases endorphins (happy chemicals), which decrease stress and improve sleep.
  • Encouraging young people to take a short walk or cycle a bike can help them de-stress and recharge.
  • Playing sports like football or rugby can help young people socialise with other young people, which has positive effects for their mental health.
Check out the video below with some young people from Childline talking about exams and mental health.

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