As a coach who teaches mindfulness and resilience in schools, it’s usually pretty easy for me to give advice around stress management for exams, however, today my son is taking his first GCSE (the day before his 16th birthday) and it’s tough as a parent to watch your child have to go through this kind of pressure. So, I thought I’d share my top 5 tips based on the research I’ve done through my work, but also my experience as a parent going through this right now.
1. Manage your own stress.
This is about them not us, our role as parents is to offer emotional and practical support through this process, so no matter how worried or concerned we might be, letting them see this isn’t going to help. It’s really easy for us to forget that our children look to us to measure how bad a situation really is, if they see us panicking it will stress them out even more. So, whether it’s exercising, chatting to a friend, meditation, walking in nature, reading, listening to music, get yourself some good stress management practices in place so that you can fully be there to emotionally support your child when they need you.
2. Reward effort not outcome.
I get that this might be a controversial thing to say, but all the evidence points to the fact that rewarding outcome (extrinsic motivation) actually has a negative impact on performance, because it puts more pressure on the student. If your child is suffering from stress or anxiety around exams it’s likely that they are stressed enough about passing, without having the extra pressure of knowing that they will only be rewarded by their parents if the results are good. The more that is at stake the more stress they will feel. By rewarding the effort put into revising you are encouraging them to work hard regardless of the outcome. After all, all we can ask of our kids is that they work to the best of their ability to prepare for these exams, that’s the only thing in their control, the results of those exams aren’t.
3. Use mindfulness techniques to help them manage their stress.
It’s important to understand that stress is a normal response to a real or perceived threat, but when we get stressed we are not able to think clearly, that’s why our minds can sometimes go blank, not great in an exam situation!
Mindfulness promotes present moment non-judgemental awareness which helps manage stress. By becoming aware of being in the present moment we are no longer thinking about what has happened or what might happen and minimizes the risk of catastrophic thinking. A simple technique for this is getting your child to notice how it feels to be sitting where they are, bringing awareness to the breath, noticing how it feels to breathe and allowing thoughts to come and go without forming any attachment to them. When we learn to become the observer of our experience rather than the participator we can notice our thoughts without emotionally reacting to them. There are lots of great resources for 3-minute breathing spaces and other mindfulness practices out there (including apps) so it’s easier than ever to find something that will work for your child. Also yawning and stretching for 60 seconds has been shown to have a positive effect on the brain, it’s one of the quickest ways to calm down and can be done at any point in the exam itself.
4. Focus on positivity.
Negative words strain a child’s brain, but positive words lower anxiety. By bringing mindful awareness to language we can make better choices in the words we use. If we speak negatively about exams or revision, we are increasing our child’s stress without realising it. Teaching children to use more positive words helps them to have more emotional control & increased attention span. Like negativity, positivity is contagious, the more we focus on the things that are good and important to us (our values) the more motivated we feel. Help your child to focus on all the positive aspects of revision and exams. E.g. Revision will help me pass my exams, exams will help me get a job I love.
5. Keep perspective.
My last piece of advice would be this, keep perspective. Even if the worst was to happen and your child doesn’t get the grades they need they can re-take and things will work out. Sometimes, the most amazing experiences we have in life come along when things haven’t gone the way we wanted and when we look back we realise those were the best things that could have happened to us. Yes, it’s tough to watch our kids grow and have to go through these kind of stressful situations, but it’s one more step for us to take with them on this incredible journey of being a parent and that is a gift in itself.