Exam Pressures

In a blog 10.04.16, HMC member Kevin Fear, headmaster of leading independent Nottingham High School writes about how parents can support pupils to cope with exam pressure.

As we move into the Summer Term and the peak season for public examinations we are very aware as a school of the importance of supporting our students through this stressful time.  In my view, key to this is a successful partnership of parents, pupils and teachers.  It is very easy for us as adults to under-estimate the pressures that young people are under.  Much of this pressure actually emanates from adults – from parents who are understandably anxious to want their children to do their best and from schools who are under constant monitoring by external bodies such as OFSTED.  Exams these days are high stakes.

So how can we help children cope with the many pressures?  In the main it is down to the School to ensure that pupils are as well-prepared as possible for the forthcoming exams.  Teachers in my own school, like in so many others, put on regular lunchtime clinic sessions and also run occasional sessions in the holidays just to ensure that we are building the confidence of our students.  Of course, the students themselves must buy into all this both by turning up to these extra sessions but also by working their way through a systematic programme of revision.  It can help if students discuss their revision plans with their pastoral staff so that they can learn how best to structure such revision and to check that it is realistic in its demands on a daily basis.  It is very important that there are regular gaps for some time off, that it allows for the fact that teenagers like (and need) to sleep in during school holiday periods and that there is time for some fresh air and exercise by way of balance.

Parents need to tread carefully at exam time.  We are as parents very well aware of just how important public examinations are but at this stressful time of the year we need to be there really just to keep morale up, to help in any ways that our children need and to remain calm.  In my experience adding to the pressures felt by teenage children is rarely helpful.  However, for some children it can help if you can work with them to devise a timetable for their revision, to help test them on some of the material and to make endless snacks to keep their morale up.  It is important for all adults to realise that children may well not work most effectively copying the way that you used to revise for your exams.  Some children really will work harder if they have music on, they are used to both working and keeping on top of their social media profiles and these are probably battles not best fought at exam time.

Parents though must also be realistic.  It is rare that students out-perform expectations at exam times.  They will, all being well, receive the grade that they deserve but this will not be a top grade in every case.  If parents feel that their children are under undue levels of pressure they should always alert the School – sometimes sensible advice is best dispensed by those you are not related to!  Above all, parents must not give any impression that their love for their child is in any way dependent on performance.  This really is a time to praise their effort rather than their attainment.  It is important that children are not placed under any greater strain by their parents.  You can best help by encouraging them to laugh, to smile, to take exercise, to rest and to stick to their plan which hopefully you can have agreed with them in advance.  Buying some chocolate can also help! It does not help to keep questioning the number of hours they are doing, nor to be suggesting that others are doing more work or worst of all that you worked much harder for your own exams.

Students though must also open up at this important time.  If they are worried about how things are going they need to talk to their parents or to their teachers at school.  Many schools have excellent counselling services that they can also draw upon.  Students in my experience are very well aware of how important the exams are but are sometimes daunted by the level of expectations that they face.  Talking to a caring adult can certainly help and yet we all find it difficult to ask for help when we are struggling.  This is why all adults have a duty of care to keep an eye on things and to initiate these conversations.

In the end it is almost always the case that most students gain the results that their efforts over the course that they have studied deserve.  There is a long summer holiday to look forward to so the next two months or so must be just seen as a period to give yourself every chance of success.  Sporting analogies can help here – the revision must be seen as the inevitable training before the big match/race – very necessary, sometimes painful but important in giving yourself the best chance in the main event.  If you are well-prepared, well-rested and have been able with parental support to retain a sense of perspective about it all you will likely fulfil your potential.  If, on the other hand, you do no training/revision and just turn up and hope for the best it is likely to end in disappointment.

I wish all those studying for their exams all the very best.  To all the parents reading please try to remain calm and concentrate on keeping your child in a very positive frame of mind and finally a huge thank you to all the teachers who give so freely of their time to support every stage of this process and who so often go the extra mile in helping out even their most challenging students.  Together we can all do this….

Read more on Kevin's blog.