Supporting children with exam stress

Posted: Tuesday April 23 2019

By: Jamie Broadley

Supporting children with exam stress. The nights are getting lighter, the days warmer, there’s bank holidays in the diary and, overshadowing it all, the looming stress of exams. Regardless of our opinion on the amount of testing that children have to go through it is very much still a reality for many families currently as exam season approaches. The stress of exams can be significant for children, parents and the relationship between the entire family. Whilst there are, unfortunately, few hard and fast rules for helping us sail through this challenging period there are certain principles and techniques that we can utilise to lift the pressure on the children and ease the stress of the parents. Hopefully leading to a more harmonious summer!

Supporting children with exam stress


Supporting children with exam stress. There is a wealth of resources out there, competing for your attention and your credit card, promising to help children pass their exams. The issue here is that there is a crucial difference between passing exams and learning. The former is developing memory, the latter is developing knowledge. Taking a step back it is clear which we should be selecting for. We therefore need to look at the evidence behind different learning techniques – here we see that the most effective style of learning for developing knowledge is to teach. In a situation where children are taught at for 99% of their time in education, try to flip this and empower them. Get some mock exam papers and have them teach you how to pass them. This not only improves the chances of them understanding the subject but, crucially, changes the relationship dynamic between you which can reduce the stress from the situation.

When exam time draws closer there is a helpful quote that can guide the final preparations: ‘we do not rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to level of our training’. Consider a sports team, in their training they seek to replicate the conditions of their competition so they know they are ready once they step on the field. When revising, seek to do likewise – remove distractions, replicate the silence of the exam hall, provide uncertainty over what questions may be presented. This also then pulls on the advantages of context dependant memory – we are more likely to remember things when recalling them in a similar situation to where we learnt them.


Growth Mindset

Exams are pressure enough for all involved without loading the extra intensity of personal and family expectations. It can therefore be helpful at this point to introduce the concept of growth mindset. This is the idea that we are good at things that we spend meaningful time on and have good strategies for. The opposite is a fixed mindset, where we (incorrectly) believe that we are good or bad at things due to innate strengths and weaknesses. This latter mindset then shows itself in limiting beliefs e.g. “I’m rubbish at English”, which lead to reduced effort and a self-fulfilling prophecy in terms of performance.

It is easy to see how the modern education system can reinforce some of these limiting beliefs with class set systems, narrow testing formats and poor quality feedback. It can therefore be a valuable tool for parents to identify where these limiting beliefs are appearing and challenge them. A simple shift in feedback from “well done, you’re really good at maths” to “well done, you must have tried really hard at that”, helps reinforce the fact that we are better at things we try harder at, creating a virtuous cycle. It is worth looking at Carol Dwecks book on Growth Mindset for more on this area.

It is also worth a brief note here that including punishments for negative behaviours and treats for positive behaviours is a very limited model for improving performance. Far better to follow the model laid out by Dan Pink in his TED talk of trying to provide autonomy, mastery and purpose, which has a deeper and more lasting effect on performance.


In the pressured environment of exam season the focus can narrow to the immediate tests ahead. This, certainly for a parents stress levels, isn’t particularly helpful, so a little dose of perspective is just what is required to take the heat from the situation. We can all look back at our successes and hiccups through our careers which helps remind us that we are far from perfect in this regard. It is also worth checking in with how much of an impact those exams actually had on our careers and any success we may now be enjoying. This is part of the challenge with education systems as a whole, something that is beautifully dissected in Ken Robinson’s famous TED talk – a must watch. Children sitting exams now will likely be retiring around 2075, who knows what the world will look like by then, however, I’d be willing to guess, that a knowledge of oxbow lakes or the narrative structure from ‘of mice and men’ is unlikely to be crucial.

Instead, in a rapidly changing world, it is the meta skills of communication, creativity, resilience, relationship building and effort that will be a far greater predictor of success. These are only partly measured by exams, so even if the results don’t go to plan, it is far from a disaster. The skill of the child in responding to that hardship is going to be far more useful than any grade they may or may not get. To explore this further ‘Homo Deus’ by Yuval Noah Harari is an excellent exploration on what the future may hold and how we can best prepare for it.

The final thing that is helpful to bear in mind comes from an ancient Latin phrase: ‘Amor Fati’. This translates as ‘love of fate’, the idea that we embrace whatever happens to us and make the best of it. Whilst we may have ideas about how we would like the world to be and how we would like these exams to go, unfortunately this isn’t a controllable for us. Acceptance of this and a warm embrace for whatever comes next is both freeing for us and, in turn, beneficial for the children as they feel the reduced sense of expectation.


As we’ve explored here, exam time can be a real balancing act for parents, navigating the dichotomy between supporting children to perform, whilst not pressurising and thus negatively impacting that performance. I hope the resources discussed above help structure your thinking through this period. You won’t get it right throughout, but that is ok, hopefully it will help reduce stress for all involved and keep everyone close, as ultimately that is the most important thing.