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How to deal with your children’s exam stress

Children are under increasing pressure to pass exams due to the current Government testing system which is used in UK schools to assess pupils’ attainment.

Poet and former children’s laureate, Michael Rosen, is a firm critic of the testing culture which has grown up in education over the past 10 years. He says parents have become too anxious about their children’s “success” because of the constant testing they undergo in schools.

Teachers also feel the pressure as the SATS (Standard Attainment Tests) carried out in Key Stage 1 and 2 at age seven and 11 are used as a way to judge and compare schools.

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Consequently this passes on to children whose performance in the tests reflects not only on them, but on their teachers and their schools.

Last year the National Union of Teachers threatened to boycott the tests after a 2015 study showed that 76 per cent of primary school teachers said they had seen pupils develop stress-related illnesses in the run-up to SATs.

ChildLine reported counselling up to 3,000 young people over exam stress and it was eventually announced that Government would scrap the tests for seven-year-olds from 2023 onwards.

However a First News poll we did last year found that it was actually parents who were stressed by SATS, rather than children who often were not aware they were happening, thanks to careful handling by some schools.

Whether we like it or not, our children will have to face exams at primary and secondary school and possibly later in their careers. As parents we can help them to develop good preparation habits and strategies for coping with nerves, which will build resilience to last them through the challenges ahead.

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Here are some tips for helping with exam stress:

  • Make sure your child eats well around test time. Choose healthy snacks rather than sugary drinks and food which can encourage low and high mood swings.
  • Make sure they get enough sleep. Allow at least half an hour between studying or screen time and bed time to give them a chance to wind down. A good sleep will benefit your child more than last minute panicky cramming.
  • Make sure they have a comfortable place to work if they are preparing for exams. Some children find it easier to work with music playing in the background, some need quiet.
  • Be calm, encouraging and be available to talk to them about any fears they may have. Talk to their teacher at school if you feel they are not coping and encourage them to share their worries with a trusted friend, parent or tutor to help keep them in perspective.
  • Remind them that nerves are normal and can even be useful to push people through a challenge. You can also help to reduce anxiety by familiarising them with the test, asking if they can see the room where they will sit the exam in advance and by doing some practice papers.
  • Exercise and fresh air can help burn off anxious energy and change perspective about exams (for parents as well as children!). Be positive and reassuring, reminding them that exam results are not the end of the world and that you love them, no matter what the outcome.

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