Tackling Exam Stress – Tips for parents and pupils

Tackling Exam Stress

In this article I offer some thoughts on the nature of exam related stress based on over thirteen years of experience working within secondary education, and on my work now as a Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist in private practice.

Exam Stress – defining the problem

Many people will say they are afraid of exams, but for most the level of anxiety is reasonable and appropriate. A little anxiety is no bad thing if it acts as a motivation to prepare properly and to tackle the task with a determined approach.

For some though, the level of fear and anxiety is overwhelming and they reach a point where they are so scared that they are unable to concentrate or remember things: at this point the exam stress has become more akin to panic and this is a problem that needs to be addressed swiftly before it becomes chronic. But how can sitting an exam trigger a panic response?

We might question – it’s an exam, what is to be scared of? An exam is merely an assessment of a level of skill or knowledge in a particular field or subject at a particular point in time. Of course, it’s not the exam we fear – it’s the perceived consequence of the outcome.

CBT for Exam Stress

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is a model of counselling that looks at the link between any given trigger event, the thoughts and evaluations that the mind makes of that trigger, and the resultant emotions, behaviours and physical symptoms.

Thus, in the context of exam stress, the fear and anxiety a pupil or parent experiences at exam time is in reality a function of the underlying thought process for that individual. To explain this: the link between the activating event (I’m sitting this exam) and the resultant emotion (fear/anxiety) is contained in the negative automatic thought that underlies this (such as ‘I will fail and my life is therefore ruined’). Notice how in this example the ‘thought’ is catastrophising the outcome.

Cognitive Therapy can help to explore these thoughts, consider their objective validity and look to create more realistic thinking patterns. In this case we would consider what would constitute failure – is there a particular mark or grade that is in some way critical; what is the likelihood of not achieving this is; and what realistically would happen if the mark were not attained.

Most exams these days allow re-sits and even if you don’t get to pass this time it doesn’t mean you’ll never pass. Failing an exam does not kill you – it just tells you to do something differently next time. And life long learning means that sometimes doing something like a university degree is more successful if you do it as a mature adult, and not as part of the education treadmill so many get caught on as adolescents. Don’t be afraid to take a different route to success – if you don’t get the grades you need for a specific course maybe try an alternative.

What if I’ve got Pushy Parents?

I recall a year 9 pupil who suddenly became withdrawn and deeply depressed. It transpired that this bright and vivacious young girl had been told by her father that if she did not get over 80% in all of her end of year exams he would send her pony to the abattoir – he was being entirely serious: imagine the effect on her.

This lovely young woman, with an exceptionally warm personality and hard working attitude, gave of her best: she was someone who would no doubt be very successful in the future, but her father’s demand on her was entirely arbitrary and unrealistic and the pressure highly destructive. She was doomed to failure and she knew it.

This kind of parenting is highly abusive and his inability to value her as an individual said more about his failure than hers. Thankfully the school was able to intervene and prevent a potentially disastrous outcome.

Over the years there were many more cases of pupils who would be reduced to tears in anticipation of a report grade or an examination result: fearful of parental disapproval or punishment. The stress was borne of the idea that they were unlovable if they did not meet parental demands for academic achievement: that their parents would think badly of them. The reality here is that young children can only fear an exam if an adult tells them to or creates a negative consequence that will threaten them.

Although for example, SAT’s were designed to monitor teacher effectiveness – parents become anxious about what it says about them as parents. With the teachers and the parents anxious no wonder the children start to feel scared. But, children grow at different rates – would we be so hung up if pupil height were assessed in an annual exam – so why do we get hung up on academic development when it also grows at different rates?

The meaning of an exam grade or mark needs to be considered in the context of the pupil’s latent talents and interests in that subject or arena. The pushy parent who ultimately fails to see and value the uniqueness and individual talents of their child, who sets an arbitrary mark or threshold for a given subject, is impeding the child’s natural development and unwittingly creating the next generation of people with injured self esteem.

The key to exam success

What I learned over the thirteen years of teaching is that the pupils who are most confident of the love and warmth and acceptance of their parents are the ones who cope best with challenges like exams and ultimately the ones who achieve of their best. They know that if they give of their best then whatever outcome they achieve it will be manageable – any setbacks can be dealt with, and they will be supported.

This is the message for parents reading this article – reassure the child that they are still lovable and that any setbacks or disappointments can be dealt with and worked around. Illustrate how you worked around your own failures to ultimately achieve success.

For the pupils who experience less loving relationships at home and are oftentimes chronically fearful of rejection, criticism and humiliation by their parents the stakes are much higher and the resultant anxiety sadly impacts on their performance and invariably compromises what they might be capable of. Excessive anxiety does not help concentration and memory: fight-flight-freeze is not a good strategy to use when trying to optimise performance in an exam situation. Frightened pupils will not perform at their best.

Pull, don’t Push

For parents then the notion must be to encourage (pull) and not push. Help motivate and encourage the young person with love and affection rather than beat them up with humiliation and criticism. It ain’t rocket science – but some parents need it spelled out. Failure is not the end of the world – use it and learn from it, but pass or fail you are still accepted and valued as an individual (ie loved).

Fear of the F-Word

What is important to remember is that FAILURE is a verb not a noun. If you fail at a task it does not make you a failure – it merely denotes a failure to achieve a particular outcome at a particular time. So, go away, think about what you need to do differently and have another go. If at first you don’t succeed, try doing something differently. Successful people will tell you that if you never fail then you are clearly not trying hard enough. Think about that one – it’s a paradoxical truism..

It’s important to remember that successful people seldom lead straight-forward linear lives. They can allow for a bit of chaos, go with the flow, if things don’t work out as expected then they take the opportunity to move in a new direction. And importantly here, the majority of successful people will have achieved their success over a period of time and have included a certain amount of failure on the way. Failure is useful as it teaches us to do it differently next time – we learn more from our failures than our successes.

If you are sitting an exam make the most of the opportunity. Plan a strategy to optimise the marks. Do your best and deal with whatever outcome you achieve. Life offers endless possibilities -examinations are merely tokens to collect on the way in between all the other stuff.

Counselling Caerphilly GlamorganAbout The Author

Alex Drummond is a fully qualified Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist and Counsellor located near Caerphilly Glamorgan. His clients come from Cardiff, Newport, Ebbw Vale, Pontypool, Cwmbran and the surrounding valleys.

For more information about Alex’s work visit his GoToSee profile page here


Visit his website www.talkmebetter.com

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