Stress- how to minimise the effects when studying
By Elizabeth Holtom
28 Mar

Elizabeth Holtom works as a study skills consultant, offering workshops, lectures and Inset to prep schools. Elizabeth is the author of Study Skills: Building the study skills needed for 13+ and beyond 

Children in year 8 are preparing for Common Entrance exams in the summer term, possibly the first really important exams of their school life.  How children cope with these potentially stressful challenges will vary from one individual to another. 

What happens to us under stress?
There is a significant increase in the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol in the brain. It can be really useful to be in this state for a short period as a motivator for getting on with revision or just before a test, exam or presentation.

Good stress can:

  1. Increase focus

  2. Mobilize energy

  3. Sharpen thinking skills

  4. Improve memory

However, a prolonged period of excessive stress is likely to damage the neurons in the hippocampus which plays a vital part in memory.  

Excessive stress can:

  1. Increase mistakes

  2. Reduce rational, logical thinking

  3. Reduce energy

  4. Kill brain cells

The more children can benefit from short bursts of good stress and minimise the damaging effects of excessive stress, the better.

Here are some suggestions for minimising the damaging effects for three kinds of child. 
The procrastinators
We all know what it is like to put off doing something because it is unpleasant, boring or worrying. No wonder some children become procrastinators when it comes to homework and revision. Last minute cramming is stressful and inefficient. These children need to take responsibility for their learning and have a compelling reason for engaging positively with their studies.

  1. They should set themselves goals. Use the exercise on pages 19 and 20 of  Study Skills: Building the study skills needed for 13+ and beyond  - the third question in the exercise is particularly important because they have to think about why their goals matter to them. Their reasons must be personal and not influenced by parents or peers.

  2. They should use a Yearly Planner. They need to have the big picture of just how long they have before their project is due in or their exams start. They need to commit to a revision programme.  

  3. They should remove distractions from the place where they study and sleep. Social media and games have to be amongst the top distractions. Negotiate when and for how long children use their devices.  Point out to them that Cristiano Ronaldo, the number one footballer in the world, switches off all his devices, including television, an hour and a half before he goes to bed. The whole family should take this on board. No one should have a phone by their bed because sleep is impaired by the blue wave length light it emits. Lack of sleep will lead to stress and poorer performance at school.

The 'panickers'
The problem with a surge of panic is that our thinking brain shuts down. We are all familiar with the expression ‘My mind went blank.’ What a shame if this happens during an exam in spite of all that amazing revision. These children need control over their learning and strategies for helping them keep calm.

  1. They should establish a regular routine in a familiar setting - this will help them manage their mood. They could try out the Subject checklist or the Weekly planner. Look at the AEIOUs of learning for tips on creating an environment at home that is conducive to learning.

  2. They should use the 'Keep Calm' breathing exercise on page 5 of Study Skills: Building the study skills needed for 13+ and beyond   Here is another breathing exercise: take a breath as you count to six in your head. Breathe out as you count to eight. Repeat this several times until you feel you are calming down.

  3. They should get plenty of exercise. This is a fantastic way to reduce stress for all learners.  Exercise increases blood flow and oxygen going to the brain and boosts energy levels.

The perfectionists
These learners may be overwhelmed by the thought of exams because they are undermined by fear of failure.  Failure in their eyes may simply be not getting a top score. It is vital that they develop resilience in the face of challenges and setbacks. Thomas Edison, the American inventor, has some wonderful quotes on this topic:

‘I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’
‘Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. 
The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.’

  1. They should use the Positive thinking exercise on page 4 of Study Skills: Building the study skills needed for 13+ and beyond 

  2. They should work in a pleasant environment that is conducive to learning. Perhaps background music will help keep them calm. Look at the suggestions in the While you work section on page 22 of Study Skills: Building the study skills needed for 13+ and beyond 

  3. If they use the Set yourself goals exercise on pages 19 and 20 of Study Skills: Building the study skills needed for 13+ and beyond   they must take care to set themselves realistic goals that are achievable. After all, when you set out to climb a mountain, you start with the first step.

The above tips will help all learners whatever their approach to exams.  Here is one last bit of advice for everyone: make sure you drink enough water as dehydration can cause stress.  Finally, as it says on all those greetings cards: Keep calm and carry on!

Study Skills: Building the study skills needed for 13+ and beyond  is a guide to smart learning and suitable for all pupils at Key Stage 3, but is particulary focused on preparation for 13+ entrance exams. It offers a holistic approach to study to give pupils the essential skills and tools they need to learn and revise efficiently.

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Tags: 11+ Revision, 11, exam, plus, revision, stress, study

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