Why Are Exams So Stressful? And Can Adolescents Learn To Cope?
Takeaway: Restarting exams after a two-year break affects adolescents emotionally because there are multiple factors at play. But as parents, there’s a lot we can do to help. Specifically, we can teach our children to reframe their anxieties and focus more on ‘learning’ than ‘performing.’ And for persistent emotional issues, we can consult a specialist for help.
Exams are around the corner after two years of cancellations, raising most children’s stress levels.
This year’s GCSEs and SATs are nearly here, likely adding to your child’s stress levels. But what does this mean for her mental health? It will certainly be a jarring change after two years of less-pivotal small-scale tests, but exam anxieties were an unsettling phenomenon even before the pandemic. For instance, The Guardian covered a 2017 study reporting that 80% of primary school leaders surveyed noted rising mental health anxieties amongst their students around exam time. This included sleeplessness, panic attacks, and bouts of crying. And we know these issues carry on into adolescence, too, so exam anxieties aren’t a new phenomenon.
Exam anxieties feel overwhelming because they affect children mentally, emotionally and physically – all at once.
The thing about exams is that they challenge children in multiple ways. For instance, they’ll overload their ability to think calmly and rationally, causing them to worry obsessively about failing. And this affects their focus, discipline, and learning capacity. But the mental stress also translates into physical stress (headaches, light-headedness, rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, etc.) and emotional stress (anxiety, frustration, hopelessness, etc.). So it’s like a coordinated attack on a child’s coping mechanisms.
And that’s just the start. There are so many more pieces to this ‘exam fear’ puzzle.
There’s so much to unpack when it comes to exam fears. For instance, exams stretch a child’s work capacity because they have to cover way more than usual during revision time. Simultaneously, there’s a subtle-but-steady increase in pressure as parents urge their children to revise more, and teachers begin to raise their expectations (e.g., ‘You’ll need five GCSEs if you want to go to college’). Finally, things get even worse if children begin to associate exam success with their sense of self-worth. If who you are is determined by how you perform, you’re going to start dreading bad performances.
All this can cause a chain reaction where children start overthinking.
Psychologists have come up with a set of theories – called ‘explicit monitoring’ theories – to explain the effect of all this stress. These theories explore how exam anxieties cause children to start overthinking things, disrupting their ‘flow’ state while studying and/or writing their exams. We see examples of this outside the world of academics, too. For instance, a tennis player’s stroke won’t be as smooth if she focuses too much on her form. That attention to detail should be drilled during practice, leaving her to instinctively react during the actual game. Similarly, the more anxious a child gets, the more she fixates on small, pointless details rather than sticking to her larger strategy.
The opposite can happen, too. A child’s anxieties might also hijack her attention, pulling her out of the moment.
A second set of psychological theories – the ‘distraction’ theories – explores how obsessive worrying can drain our mental capacity (e.g., working memory capacity), reducing our ability to perform. For instance, say a child is struggling to answer a question. If she panics about being stuck, her anxiety will cloud her focus, making it nearly impossible to progress. Instead, if she calms herself and stays in the moment (not thinking about the future), she’s putting her brain in the best possible state to work out an answer.
Another complication is that exams create an inherently artificial environment. So, it’s no surprise that children struggle to cope.
Exams test what a child has learned. But, really, they often only test how good she is at writing exams. True learning is an exciting, exploratory process where children research an idea, develop theories, test their reasoning, apply their solutions to human needs, cooperate with others, and more. But we can’t gauge all these elements via standardised, national-level testing. Our exams become a rigid, artificial system of ranking children based on arbitrary skills like remembering facts or performing under pressure. We prioritise reasoning and logic over social intelligence and empathy. We discount so much of a child’s potential, in an effort to test a tiny fraction of her capabilities.
Still, we can make the best of a tough situation. We can teach our children how to harness their exam stress.
Not all stress is bad. Back in 1908, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson recognised that too little stress can be as toxic as too much. They developed the Yerkes-Dodson law, which states that performance improves as stress levels increase – but only up to a certain optimal point. After that, more stress crashes the system. So, as parents, we can teach our children to embrace tolerable stress levels, using it as fuel to sharpen their focus and read/learn more. And we can teach them to spot and address signs of ‘toxic’ stress – for example, feeling irritable/overwhelmed, losing their appetite, or withdrawing socially.
But most importantly, we can help our children reframe what exams mean to them.
‘Goal orientation’ theories in psychology explore the power of setting the right kinds of goals. They reveal that students who aim to learn and explore (i.e., to master a subject) will think and act differently from those who aim to get good grades (i.e., to perform well). And this difference in outlook – i.e., learning vs performing – changes how they perceive exams and how much pressure they put on themselves. Additionally, they’ll find school life more motivating if they focus on improving and growing (i.e., finding success) rather than doing better than everyone else (i.e., trying to avoid failure). So, as parents, we can encourage our children to reframe how they approach exams – seeing them as a tool for self-improvement rather than as fuel for self-doubt and fear.
If your child struggles to cope with her anxieties, there’s likely more than one issue at play. And this is something a specialist can help with.
It’s easy for a struggling child to mislabel herself as ‘incapable’ or ‘stupid,’ especially if she has an unrecognised challenge like a learning difference or mood disorder. So, our goal should be to explore her learning environment as a whole to figure out the kind of help she’ll need. At The Ed Psych Practice, we offer face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:
- Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356
- E-mail: Office@TheEdPsych.com
Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.
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