Helping your primary school child with exam stress

Schoolboy studying in classroom
With increasing numbers of children suffering the effects of test anxiety, how can you help your child keep their nerves under control?

Many of us look back on our primary school days as a halcyon period, carefree and devoid of worries. But for our children, school life is a lot more pressured and intense than it was a generation ago. According to a 2016 poll by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, children as young as six are suffering from exam-related anxiety, and ChildLine counselled over 3,000 young people about exam stress last year.

In a 2015 study by the National Union of Teachers (NUT), 76 per cent of primary school teachers said they’d seen pupils develop stress-related illnesses in the run-up to SATs, and Trudy Cowan, school nursing expert at the University of Derby, agrees that children are under more pressure than ever. ‘Schools have targets to hit so they have to encourage pupils to do their best in assessments,’ she explains. ‘Children are also constantly compared and competing with others, not just at school, but even within their own families.’

What’s causing the primary school stress epidemic?

It’s impossible to pinpoint a single cause of the growing burden of stress on primary school children, but testing, and SATs in particular, seem to be a major source of anxiety. As the NUT report says, ‘even where staff said that they tried to “protect” their students from the pressure, pupils talked about ways in which teachers reinforced the importance of tests and exams, for example by regular mention of SATs.’

Trudy agrees. ‘Good schools will try to be nurturing and supportive and not make SATs a big deal, but the bottom line is that they do have to demonstrate good results and have a reliable way of assessing children,’ she says.

Some schools put more emphasis on SATs than others, but even in schools where the tests are downplayed, children may still become stressed and anxious. High achievers, for example, have a natural tendency to compare themselves with others and want to be the best. Pupils who find schoolwork a struggle, and those with special needs, may also feel stressed and worried, and it’s an established fact that girls tend to put themselves under more pressure than boys.

Is your child suffering from exam stress?

The signs of exam stress can be difficult to spot, especially in the youngest children who may not recognise, or be able to verbalise, the way they’re feeling. Boys, especially, tend to be less open about their emotions, which can make them harder to help.

Signs to look out for include:

  • Mood changes, such as being tearful, angry or withdrawn.
  • Not wanting to go to school.
  • Complaining of stomach aches, headaches, or other physical symptoms.
  • Spending excessive amounts of time on homework or revision, or alternatively, hiding or avoiding schoolwork.
  • A reluctance to talk about school or exams.
  • Changes in their sleeping or eating habits.
  • Low self-esteem, such as calling themselves ‘stupid’ or saying they’re ‘rubbish’ at certain subjects.
  • Reacting extremely if they make mistakes in their work, or if you try to encourage them to have a break.

‘Ultimately, parents know their children best, so if you’ve noticed any changes in your child’s behaviour, it’s important to try to have a conversation with them about how they’re feeling,’ says Trudy.

Tackling exam stress in primary school children

Helping a primary school child deal with exam stress, whether that’s surrounding SATs, the 11+ or other tests, can be tricky. ‘Children aren’t daft, especially the time they get to Year 6, so there’s no point telling them that the results of their exams don’t matter,’ explains Trudy. But equally, you need to help them understand that if their tests don’t go as well as planned, life still goes on.

Talk to your child. Ask them about their fears and worries, and help them put them into perspective. Sometimes, just being listened to is enough to relieve the burden a little.

Talk to their teacher. Find out how much schoolwork they should be doing at home, then help them draw up a timetable so they know what and when they should be revising. If they’re finding the workload too much, or are overworking, make sure the teacher knows what’s going on.

Provide the right learning environment. ‘Some children need silence and no distractions to study, while others work better with some music on in the background,’ says Trudy. Working out their learning style can make revision a more productive and less stressful experience.

Don’t police your child. ‘If they’re panicking that they haven’t prepared well enough, stopping them working could make them more anxious and upset, even if you’re sure they’ve done enough,’ Trudy explains. Equally, letting your child ignore their homework so they don’t get stressed could make things harder in the long run. Try to support and encourage, rather than dictating terms.

Make learning fun. ‘There are lots of ways you can practise maths and literacy with your child, without it feeling like hard work,’ says Trudy. Card games, word and number puzzles, mental maths and reading for pleasure will all help consolidate the skills your child needs to do well in exams.

Help them visualise their feelings. Your child might like to draw or write about their worries on a piece of paper then screw it up and throw it away, symbolically getting rid of their stress, or use ChildLine’s Art Box to process their feelings.

Teach them to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. If your child is saying, ‘I can’t do this, it’s too hard,’ or ‘I’m so thick,’ teach them to turn these thoughts on their head, telling themselves, ‘I’m going to work at this until I understand it better,’ or ‘I’m only feeling like this because I’m nervous.’

Encourage them to take regular breaks. ‘Make sure they keep doing the things they enjoy around their schoolwork, whether that’s playing football, going swimming or just chilling out watching TV,’ Trudy advises.

Explain how anxiety feels. It can be reassuring if children understand the physical and mental effects of anxiety and stress, so they can identify what they’re feeling and try to counter it. ChildLine’s video, below, explains it in child-friendly terms. You could also teach them some mindfulness tips for when anxiety threatens to overwhelm them.

Build healthy habits. Exercise will not only give your child some time away from school work, but will also help stress hormones dissipate. Make sure they’re eating a healthy diet and drinking plenty to avoid dehydration, which can make it harder to concentrate.

Run through exam technique with your child. Reinforce important skills like making sure they’ve read the question properly, answering the questions they know they can get right first, and leaving time to check their paper. This will help them feel more confident about the exam.

Make sure they’re prepared on exam day. Do what you can to help them have a good night’s sleep and a decent breakfast. Help them sort out everything they need for the test: pens and pencils, a bottle of water, tissues, and so on.

Play up their strengths. Explain to your child why it’s important not to compare themselves to others, for example by asking their friends about their answers after the exam. Talk about the strengths and skills they have outside the classroom, whether they’re brilliant at music or a good friend. Above all, reassure them that we’re all different and unique, and whatever the outcome of the exam, you’ll still love them just as much.