7 top tips for helping your child cope with exam stress
By Dr Kathy Weston
27 Mar

Dr Kathy Weston is one of the national experts on parental engagement. A motivational speaker and researcher, she delivers talks to parents in schools all over the UK. Read more about her work here: or follow her on Facebook: Dr Kathy Weston.

Ask any parent about what they are currently worried about, or indeed their children, and the first thing that comes to mind is exam stress. This angst is replicated across the country. School-related anxiety has been described in recent years as being at “unprecedented levels” by the National Union of Teachers. Some have blamed changes to the structure of exams, societal pressure on young people in general and stresses associated with increasingly busy family lives.

As parents, we are largely powerless to change the system in which our children are being educated. However, we can use our great influence to positively impact on our children’s self-esteem, academic skill development and attitudinal approach to life in general. But how?

  1. Watch your language

As parents, the way in which we talk about exams, or indeed any big change, challenge or perceived obstacle is critical. If we talk about how much we hated doing exams at school, expect children to follow suit. If we talk about how anxious exams made us, we are setting an unhelpful tone. Instead, talk about exams as great opportunities to show off knowledge, hard work and advance through to even more exciting stages of our educational journeys.

  1. Relish challenge as a family

Learning to manage anxious feelings takes practice. Families can help children do that by giving them access to a range of diverse and challenging activities. In short, parents need to help them get comfortable with the uncomfortable. It might be attempting a climbing wall for the first time, roller-skating or trying their hand at canoeing. The key is to give them the experience of ‘butterflies in tummy’ and the experience of being able to work through those feelings to good effect.

  1. Teach them to re-frame anxiety

Anxiety is almost always referred to as the “enemy” when it comes to performing optimally. In fact, the nerves that accompany challenges are akin to an engine revving before ‘taking off’. Anxiety proves that what we are attempting matters very much to us, and that our body is getting ready to focus and get into ‘fourth gear’. By re-framing anxiety within family life and using meaningful metaphors that can help children perceive anxious feelings in more positive light, we give our children the best chance to thrive.

  1. Know that family support plays a role in their success

Anxiety can be exacerbated by poor organisational skills. By being highly organised as a family during exam season, we can help our children feel relaxed and calm. Start by ensuring that they have a comfortable place to work. Buy them the necessary stationery that allows them to feel organised and able to access revision material easily. Ensure they understand that effective revision means identifying (as early as possible) what their weak areas are and working on those. Children need to feel able to tell you when they are struggling. If they do open up, reassure them that as a family, you will help find them an answer, the best person to talk to or a resource that can move them forward. In short, let them know you have their back.

  1. Help them chart their own progress

We all need a sense that we are doing well at something to keep going. It is hard to feel motivated if you feel like you are constantly stuck and not progressing. Children need to know that they are making headway and consistently improving. Parents may helpfully remind their child to explore how far they have come academically….“Last year, you were predicted a C, this year a B! how did you achieve that?” or by asking them to rate their confidence as it relates to exam preparation, “How do you think you are doing on a scale of 0-10? (where 10 is exam ready) they might say “7” and you might reply, “Wow, great! because last week you gave me a 3/10”.

  1. Don’t neglect the power of a good night’s sleep

We know that sleep has a powerful impact on children’s learning, ability to memorise material and focus at school. A lack of sleep correlates in teens with greater levels of anxiety, depression and poorer academic performance. By remaining authoritative at bed-time (even with teens) and setting firm bedtimes (particularly during exam season) we are giving our children the best possible chance to perform well. Don’t allow them access to technology after ‘lights out’; we know this can drastically inhibit teen sleep.

  1. Remember that technology can help

These days, there is an app for just about everything. When it comes to exams, some apps can really help young people to get into the right zone for learning and managing stress. ‘Headspace’,Pacifica’ or ‘Worry Watch’ are examples of multiple apps on the market, recommended by neuroscientists to help individuals cope with everyday stressors. If your child prefers paper to technology, encourage them to try this mindset planner, designed to get them into an optimistic and proactive mood for the week ahead.
Need more guidance with preparing your child for upcoming exams? Our Study Skills books are developed exclusively for independent school exam preparation, helping to support children in overcoming exam stress and reaching their full potential.

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