Anxiety before exams and how to help

Parents can play a crucial role

With the impending exams roving on the horizon, my mind often wanders to how we support the ‘examinees’ to battle the coming tide of expectation. Pressure mounts and revision is diligently completed, or expertly avoided. The exams themselves occur with a surprising lack of fanfare and the children prove them equal to the task.

Of course, exams don’t ‘rove’ and they shouldn’t be a ‘battle’. However, they can sometimes cause a little worry in the children and, experience suggests, a little worry in their parents too.

Sometimes a little worry evolves. It grows. It becomes a mountain that seems insurmountable and when this happens a little worry becomes anxiety. Anxiety is a pest; it doesn’t limit itself to one area of our lives. It can grow from anywhere; I mentioned exams, but it can evolve out of difficult social situations, particular subjects that just won’t allow themselves to be learned, the thought of performing in the chapel or on the stage.

Anxiety doesn’t discriminate and so as teachers and parents we must learn to recognise the signs and be prepared to support our children. Anxiety is beyond a worry. It’s not an ‘overreaction’, it attacks the confidence and self-esteem that we all work so hard to build in our children and it is not insurmountable. It can be beaten.

Anxiety becomes a problem for children when it gets in the way of their day-to-day life. The NHS website usefully lists many of the signs of anxiety in younger and older children here but what to do?

Listen. Listen to them and give them opportunities to talk, if they want to. Hiding a conversation behind a joint activity can make it feel less like the Spanish inquisition.

Show. Show that you understand how they are feeling by summarising what they have said and checking with them that you understood correctly

Talk. Talk to us. We can’t help if we don’t know and children can sometimes behave very differently at home to the way they behave at school. There are many avenues to contact us; your child’s Form teacher is a very good place to start, but all staff have had pastoral training and are able to help.

I have been lucky in my years of teaching to work with a number of experienced Educational Psychologists. From this body of professionals I have garnered a few sage pieces of advice and the one that springs to mind on this subject is that ‘all behaviour has a function’. Anxiety has a function too, it is telling us to ask for help.

Fake it. If your child is anxious you will be too. In fact, if you’re like me, the very thought that they might encounter even mild discomfort will have your guts in knots, but you can’t help them with more anxiety. You need to seem like the oasis of calm containment they need for their emotions. A tall order, but another piece of advice springs to mind for this; ‘fake it till you make it’.

There are some great resources available on line if you would like to learn more about anxiety. I list them here with some further reading suggestions.

A total lack of interest in exams is a problem, it denotes a child who might not be taking their learning seriously. A preoccupation with exams is also problem, as it can cause children to forget the essential purpose of examinations; showing the child what they know, what they don’t know and giving them an understanding of what it feels like to be assessed in this way.

Our children are unlikely ever to be asked the results of their Form 6 Autumn exams in a job interview. In this way they are wholly unimportant, but as a learning experience the exams teach the children vital skills they will need as they progress through their senior schools. The sooner these skills are learned, the more time each child has to hone them to perfection.



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