Exams, class tests and mocks can be stressful. For better or worse, they’re often a test of resilience as much as knowledge. Parents can help in a number of ways to manage their child’s exam stress.
It might not be easy – your child may “push back”. Explain that you want to help; perhaps show them this post. Hopefully you’ll find something useful here that you can work on together.
Remember that they are the expert on the subject, so you don’t need to be.
Often parents ask me how they can support their children in subjects like maths or biology if they themselves didn’t take them at school (or if they did, it was a long time ago). To provide support, you don’t need to be experts – your children already are. Instead, you can be their “spotter” – like a gym buddy! Ask them what they need to work on, what list of facts they need to know and surprise them with questions out of the blue. While you aren’t providing teaching, you are motivating and encouraging your child.
Help with time-keeping and list-making.
Students approaching exams often have a lot on their mind, so practicalities like organisation and time-management get pushed aside. Here, parents can help massively with their child’s exam stress.
Gently help them to create a working routine – ask which topics they feel they need to prioritise and help them to make a list. Keep referring back to this list (even if you don’t know anything about the topics yourself – this doesn’t matter!). If they are frustrated with a topic ask them if the issue is knowledge (“making it stick”) or understanding (do they “get it”?). Breaking topics down in this way helps your child to prioritise and manage issues. Sharing these lists is also a great way to work alongside teachers and tutors – it gives us something to focus on in the next tutoring session.
Re-create exam conditions at home.
As an online A-level biology tutor, towards the exams in June and July I often try to recreate exam conditions for students – setting past papers against the clock. Parents can do this too. Print out the paper, allow your child to find a comfy, quiet spot to write and start the clock. It’s a great way of easing the child into the (sometimes) stressful environment of the exam hall. Encourage your child to focus on the paper in front of them. It’s theirs – no-one and nothing else in that exam room matters.
If they are anxious, try to find out if it’s a particular type of question, the ticking clock or something else that is troubling them. One former tutee who suffered panic attacks before exams discovered one source of stress was a fear of not having a working pen. Details like this can matter, and help to get to the bottom of your child’s exam stress.
Encourage your child to think past their exams to the summer or a holiday coming up. Also remind them that exams aren’t everything, even if they feel like they are. There is nearly always another way to get to the job or vocation that you really want. People resit exams at all ages. I am a trained wellbeing coach and often I bring this to my tutoring – keep reminding your child that they are more than their grades, and that the person they are, and will be, is more important in the long term. Tell them you’re proud of them.
Encourage, celebrate and stay “the good guy”.
Sometimes the best support is just to be Mum or Dad – bring your child a snack or a cup of tea. Be the good guy – don’t risk becoming another source of stress! After all, you know your child, and the times when it might be best to step away. Your child often has to work some things out themselves. But always be ready to celebrate a good grade – this is the key to boosting confidence. Everything starts with confidence. The exam grades will follow.
If you’d like to ask for advice on helping your with your child’s exam stress, or some tutoring support or academic coaching for your child, please get in touch with a message below, or via email.
Dr John Ankers is a specialist online biology tutor and academic wellbeing coach. https://wooltontutors.co.uk
Further reading on post-pandemic stress levels at GCSE and A-level.