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How parents can help students cope with exam stress

As GCSE and A-level exam season looms, making sure your child eats, sleeps and exercises well is key to keeping them fighting fit for what can be a testing time, says David Coleman

In the build-up to the exam season, your home may feel a bit brittle and delicate. The stress that your son or daughter is feeling could be spilling over into their interactions with the rest of the family.

It is as if, lurking somewhere (usually their bedroom), is the stressed and grumpy exam student, feeling tired and overwhelmed, who is ready to snap.

When they snap, they typically snap at little brothers who make too much noise, or older sisters who continue to have a social life, or parents who can no longer understand what it was like to have to face these exams.

To use the old expression, it can feel like you are walking on egg-shells in your own house as you try to keep everything stable and settled, and give as much help as you can to your teenage son or daughter to get them across the exam finishing line.

It is no wonder that, by the end of June, many parents may feel that they too have put in the hard work for these exams and deserve a holiday in the aftermath.

So, my plan is to give you some understanding of the nature of exam stress, the sources of that exam stress for your son or daughter, and how you can support them (and the rest of the family) safely through the next month.

Let's look first at stress in general. We usually think of stress as a bad thing, but it is really important that we feel some level of stress when we are expected to perform at our best.

A little bit of stress acts as a motivator and is helpful.

Indeed, without any stress being present, we could end up so laid-back that we wouldn't bother doing anything.

Initially, as the amount of stress we feel rises, so too does our performance. We do better with some stress. However, there comes a critical point (and it may be different for each person) at which any further increase in stress begins to become counter-productive and will decrease our performance.

In the middle, then, we end up with what is called the 'area of best performance' in which we have enough stress to get us going but not too much that we feel tired, anxious and overwhelmed. This is the zone that we'd like all students to be performing in, as it gives them the best chance of success in the exams.

In practice, we find that some students are not trying at all, and don't seem to care, the majority are doing ok, in the middle, and others are so strung out that we fear they may crack-up before they even reach the exam hall.

In trying to understand stress, we also need to think about the ways in which it affects us. Stress is actually a very physical experience.

When we get stressed, adrenaline is released into our systems, causing our heart-rate to jump, our muscles to tense up or tighten, our breathing to increase, and our thinking to become a bit irrational and, at times, over-focused.

When we have that stress continuing in the longer term (like over a few months of exam preparation), we begin to feel the effects of our bodies being under such pressure. So we may feel fatigued, physically sick (like headaches), anxious and so over-focused on the exams that other aspects of life fade into the background.

Combating stress requires a two-pronged approach. We need to deal with the physical effects of stress and we also need to understand, and try to deal with, the factors that are leading to that stress.

Now you may think that you can't change the fact that your son or daughter is doing the exams and that is true. But it does help to understand what it is about the exams that may be particularly troubling for them.

In my experience, there are three main reasons that exams prove stressful for students. They worry about the unknown (not knowing what they will face on the day of the exam), they worry about failing, and they worry that there is too much to cover and they won't be able to get all the study done.

Let's look at each issue and what you can do to help reduce the stress they may be under.

Worrying about the unknown is the most common anxiety we all share. When we don't know what to expect, we can create ideas, expectations and anticipations in our minds.

These may be accurate, based on what we have seen or heard about similar situations, or they may be wildly inaccurate.

Many students, for example, may have heard horror stories of ridiculously hard exam papers, or papers that asked about topics not even on the curriculum, or that favoured topics may not have turned up in years gone by.

So, the unknown nature of the actual exam paper is anxiety-provoking. This is why so many teachers encourage practice of past exam papers to familiarise students with the layout, marking system and nature of the kinds of questions that will be asked.

Practice in this way can reduce that anticipatory anxiety associated with the unknown.

At this stage, from your perspective, all you can offer is a reminder to keep practising.

For GCSE students, even going into the exam hall is a brand new experience.

So, hopefully, they will have done 'mock' exams back in February or March to give them some sense of the kind of occasion that comes with sitting in the exam hall.

When we think of failure, we often think of totally flunking out, perhaps not even passing a single exam. However, failure is a relative thing. The extent to which a student may feel stressed about 'failing' can depend on what their expectations are, or what expectations they believe everyone else has for them.

Either the internal standards they have, or the external standards they believe they must attain could be adding pressure onto them.

Unfortunately, so many parents and teachers will already have spent months reminding students that these exams are important and that their futures (in the case of A-level students) may be determined by their performance.

While this is true to a certain extent, and may have been useful to motivate some students to study and prepare, it may, at this stage, serve only to further pile on the pressure.If your son or daughter doesn't know by now that the exams are important, (in whatever way you think they are important) then they never will. No amount of further exhortation on your part will help. Indeed, continuing to add pressure may only hinder them.

To reduce any fear of 'failure' we must, at this point, be very clear that while we can understand their stress, we just want them to feel like they do themselves justice in the exams.

This close to the exams, we can only put a positive spin on what they might achieve. We must reassure them that, however they do, we love them and they will always have options. Whether it is for subject choices, post-GCSE, or college, or work choices, post-A-level they will always have options.

The final, likely, source of stress is to do with the amount of coursework that has to be covered to prepare for the exams.

The procrastinators amongst them may have left all the study and preparation on the long finger.

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the volume of work to be done.

Unfortunately, procrastination often becomes a very negative cycle, with the increased workload and shorter time often leading to a greater sense of impossibility about the task and less motivation to even start working.

Again, this close to the exams, the focus is much better placed on doing something rather than nothing. Structuring both their time and the subjects to be done for these final bits of revision will also really help to reduce the stress that comes from the vastness of the subject areas.

While parents can't do the work for them, we can remind them to stick with things, rather than giving up. We can also help them get the head down by removing the distractions of phones, TV, tablets and so on.

Whatever the source of the anxiety and stress associated with exams, the physical nature of the stress also needs to be addressed. I am a big fan of promoting food, sleep and exercise with students.

They, as a group, are most likely to fall into some bad habits of snacking on sugary foods, drinking caffeinated drinks, studying into the early hours of the morning and sitting at a desk for hours.

Parents can do a lot to support their teenage students by providing healthy and nutritious food for meal times and snack times. Make sure they drink lots of water. Water is a much more efficient tool, not just for hydration, but for keeping you alert.

While it may be tempting to work into the night, when other distractions will be lessened, it could mean that they won't actually get enough sleep.

Sleep is crucial to give us the energy we need to focus clearly.

Walking is the simplest way to get up and about, and get the various muscle groups activated.

But, keeping up other sports is also good, even when exams loom.

Exercise will always be an antidote to the physical stress that exam pressures place on us.

Good luck to you and your son or daughter over the next few weeks.

You'll all deserve that break at the end of the exams.

'Eating little and often is key to concentration'

Jane McClenaghan from Vital Nutrition offers some tips on how to boost your brainpower for the all-important exams:

"A good diet is definitely vital in the run-up to exams, as it helps with concentration and what you eat can affect your stress levels. If you're living on sugar and caffeine, it's going to make you pump out more adrenaline and contribute to the stress, whereas things like small, regular healthy snacks maintain your blood sugar levels, which help with concentration and energy.

I think sugary and caffeinated drinks are a big pitfall for young people at this time. They work in the short term but in the long term they're going to crash.

Store cupboard essentials would be things like yoghurt and nuts, such as almonds, hazelnuts or Brazil nuts, which are really good for protein and brain energy. Also, things like yoghurt to make smoothies with – that's the perfect energy drink.

On exam day itself, you want to be thinking at breakfast time about something that's going to keep your concentration sustained, and the key nutrient here is protein. It could be something as simple as Weetabix or a wholegrain cereal, but put some seeds and nuts into it, or have something like a boiled egg on toast, rather than sugary cereal which will just make you crash.

Then at lunchtime bring in something like a wholemeal pitta pocket packed full of tuna or chicken, with salad and some mustard or hummus.

You could also make up pasta salad in the fridge or peanut butter on toast as a snack, which has protein and essential fats. Bananas also help with seratonin levels which keep us calm and relaxed.

And if you do want some junk food, such as a pizza, have a salad with it, full of greens for your magnesium levels.

Also, make sure you're hydrated, because if you're dehydrated your concentration is going to slump. So whenever you are sitting at your desk, make sure you have water with you... and remember to drink it!"

  • Vital Nutrition offers workshops, one-to-one nutrition consultations and cookery demos throughout Northern Ireland. Find out more on www.vital-nutrition.co.uk or follow vitalnutrition on Facebook

Get moving to motivate your mind...

Personal trainer Karl Henry on why exercise is key to a fit and healthy mind at exam time

  • As we all know exams can be very stressful times – and it's exactly these times when you need to be as healthy as possible, eating properly and getting some exercise
  • We know that by lowering the stress levels, through exercise and healthy eating, you will study more productively, sleep better, perform better in the exams and find the whole experience much easier in general
  • Exercise is one of the best ways to deal with stress generally as your body produces endorphins – the happy hormone – that will leave you feeling re-energised and give you the ability to focus again on your topic of study
  • The most important part of the exercise is to ensure that you are getting slightly out of breath when you are doing it
  • So, if you're going for a walk, ensure that you are walking fast enough to get slightly out of breath. This is the best stress-busting zone and will give you the most benefits
  • So many students stop exercising around the time of exams, yet this is the most important time to exercise. It's the very time that you need to get outside, get some fresh air and release some endorphins too
  • Another key element is planning. You need to sit down and build a plan of action to take you through the next few weeks. Sit down with a pen and paper and schedule in your next few weeks in terms of exams, even on a daily basis so that you have a study timetable
  • But don't forget to add some exercise time into that timetable. When I was studying I used to do 40 minutes of study followed by 20 minutes of downtime, to eat/chill/exercise, as these times worked best for my concentration
  • Each person may be different but by scheduling in your study, rest, exercise and everything else, all of a sudden it won't feel as scary
  • It will seem within reach and you will be so much more productive too.

Try a smoothie for exam success

Green smoothie

Big handful of watercress

1 nectarine (or peach, or pear)

Avocado

A handful of fresh mint leaves

Cup apple juice or coconut water

1 cup water

Pink smoothie

2 big handfuls of mixed berries (fresh or frozen)

250g natural yoghurt (or coconut milk)

Optional extra – agave syrup to sweeten

White smoothie

1 ripe avocado

1 nectarine or peach

1 small banana (not too ripe)

2 dssp natural yoghurt

Cup almond milk

Method

Place the ingredients into your blender and blitz to the desired consistency

  • From The Vital Nutrition Cookbook, by Jane McClenaghan, available at Easons, Watersones and Amazon

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