Exam season is upon us, and the Association of School and College Leaders are reporting a high level of stress and anxiety, resulting in higher levels of requests by students to take exams in separate rooms and higher absences.

At this time of year, the exams can feel all-consuming for Year 11 and 13 students (as well as University students and not to mention those of primary age sitting their SATS). This can begin to feel overwhelming and can generate stress and anxiety. If your child’s stress bucket (their day-to-day level of worry) is reasonably empty and they are usually coping well, then the tips below will help them to continue to manage the expected stress that comes with taking exams.

When we have challenge stress, which results in a release of cortisol and adrenaline, this helps us to be focused and alert and ready to take on the challenge. When this challenge stress ends, further hormones are released to let our body and brain know that we can return to “normal”.

However, if the stress becomes extended, with the belief that there is no end in sight or perhaps predicting dire outcomes, then we produce more and more of these stress hormones. If your child has been struggling with anxiety for some time (or is particularly anxious about exams) then the cortisol created due to negative rumination, or forecasting, accumulates in our ‘stress bucket’ and starts to have a negative effect on the way we view and approach everyday tasks.  If this is the case, you may notice that your teens are finding it difficult to cope with daily (often minor challenges), such as an annoying sibling, for example. When our stress bucket is full, we spend more time in the primitive ‘survival’ part of our brain which encourages us to be more stressed, anxious or negative.

This blog is focusing on supporting children through this exam season.  If you are noticing that their stress bucket is full, that they are struggling in other areas and that they are not coping well, then please do have a read of our blog on stress awareness with additional tips and further signposting for support.

If your child is feeling stressed, you may notice some of the following:

  • Not sleeping well (their usual sleep pattern being disturbed – teenagers sleeping patterns are very different from ours!)
  • Irritable (over things that wouldn’t usually bother them)
  • A change in eating habits
  • Not wanting to do things they usually enjoy
  • Being negative and having a low mood

In addition to the expected worries about exams, they may also be struggling with:

  • Fear of a ‘bad’ outcome and the pressure that their results might impact their next steps; college, university, apprenticeships, jobs etc
  • Tiredness due to revising late into the night and struggling to sleep as their brain has not had enough downtime
  • Having to balance multiple subjects with different content and expectations
  • Hearing their friends talk about how much they’ve been doing, how late they stayed up and feel like they are not doing enough
  • Pressure of living up to siblings results and expectations of others (often perceived)

As adults, we will have our own experience of exams, and these may affect the information that we share with our children. For many, we know that exams have an impact on the next choices (college and university offers) but that they ultimately do not define our future. However, as parents (and teachers) motivating our children to revise and do their best, the message sitting with our teens may be that their future depends on these exams.

Now is the time to remind them that they are in exam season and this too will pass!

Here are our top Fairy tips to support children through this final stage of revision and into the exam halls:

  • Make a plan – your child may already have this but they might like to talk this through with you (some may want some help and accountability – one client has stuck their plan on their fridge and asked parents to ‘remind’ them when they should be studying). Plans help to measure achievement – we get a lovely dose of serotonin (the feel-good chemical) when we tick an activity off that has been completed. It also helps to show that we are making progress. As well as planning in revision, plan in other activities so that revision doesn’t feel all consuming. Knowing that you have lunch with a friend or have plans to watch a film with your family can be a good motivator for getting through the next chunk of revision.
  • Create space – It helps to have a dedicated study space (where possible), free from other distractions and clutter and somewhere they can easily return to after a break. If it’s not possible to have a dedicated desk, a large box that can accommodate all the study materials is helpful – large enough so that materials can be ordered and put away but easily returned to.
  • Take breaks – Some children will have been revising for months and have built up their revision muscles. Some may study for 30 minutes and need a 5-minute break, some 60 minutes with a 10 minute break, or even 90 minutes (especially if they are practicing exam papers) and then have a longer break. Breaks are best taken in a different space – they might include blasting a favourite song, sitting in the garden with a drink, taking the dog for a walk or a call with a friend.
  • Eat well – food is fuel and although unhealthy snacking (high sugar sweets and drinks) might feel good in the moment as they sit at their desk staring at revision resources and revision plans, high sugar snacks create a short high and then a dip in energy. Encourage healthy snacks and taking regular breaks away from the screens and desks to eat meals. It’s a good time to take a break and spend some time with family and friends too.
  • Sleep well – Encourage them to keep to a regular sleep pattern. Sleeping in can create a ‘jet lag’ effect, and this in turn can mean they are more tired and neurons fire slower. As difficult as it can be, going to bed and waking up around the same time every day is the best sleep hygiene. Encourage children to take a break from studying (and away from screens) before going to bed. Sleep is an important part of revising – it gives our brain a chance to process and file the revision from that day.

Our brains are amazing – our brain doesn’t recognise the difference between reality and what we vividly imagine. When you are talking to your teen about upcoming exams encourage them to focus on their positive goals (college, upcoming holiday, etc). Talk about their strengths and what went well with their mocks (or what they learned from their mocks). Encourage them to visualise themselves going into the exam hall, feeling calm and positive, reminding themselves that they have done their best to prepare for this exam. They can visualise taking relaxing breaths as they write their name and candidate details on the paper and as they are told that the exam is starting. Positively visualising their exam days will be recorded in their brain as if they have actually had the opportunity to sit down and practise the beginning of their exams.

On Exam Day

Eat well and stay hydrated – plan food that they feel they can eat when they are feeling worried and take healthy snacks for just before or in between exams and plenty of water.

After the exam ­– it’s done, there is nothing more that can be done! Encourage them to focus on what went well and then move on – what’s next? Focusing on what they didn’t know or how difficult they found it can affect how they approach their next exam. If it didn’t go well, celebrate that it’s over and move on.

Plan a treat – it doesn’t have to be expensive; it might be a favourite home cooked meal but have something to look forward to.

At the end of the exams – celebrate! (not results but on completing the exams and how well they coped with that challenge – hopefully celebration of results will come later).  You can prepare for Results Day here.

There are also more tips in our previous blog Exam Stress (2022)

For further help and tips visit The Youth Fairy Parent Pad for more blogs around sleep, anxiety and exams:

The Youth Fairy – Teens and Sleep

Stress Awareness

Exam Stress (2022)

Results Day

Additional support can also be found at:

Childline- Exam stress and pressure

NHS – Coping with exam stress