Exam time is upon us. As soon as the Easter holidays are in sight, a small cloud of fear rises from the pit of my stomach. It still happens now and I’m nearly 40! I absolutely hated exams when I was younger. I worked so hard throughout the year and it all came down to one day (a few hours in fact) sitting in a silent, wood-panelled hall. I would revise right up until the second I sat down, going over and over different rhymes, mnemonics and lists to aid my memory. Then I would experience it all…the feeling of panic and dread, sweaty palms, head rushes and possibly the worst feeling of all; a completely blank mind. This didn’t happen every time, but more often than not I would be in a state of terror for at least the first few minutes of the exam before I calmed myself down, usually by talking to myself.
Fortunately, the pressure of exams didn’t really start for me until my mock GCSEs. I got to the age of 14 relatively unscathed. In our modern education system however, the burden of tests and exams can start as early as 4 years old! One of my saving graces (apart from my amazingly support family) was a Maths teacher who taught me how to meditate. She taught me how to visualise a safe, tranquil place and to control my breathing. I would repeat the techniques she taught us in lessons every night before I went to bed and I became hooked! The exercises were so simple yet so effective. They calmed my anxious mind during an extremely stressful time.
Working for the last decade as a teacher in both primary and secondary schools, has made me detest exams as much as I always did. I would empathise with those children who were fantastic in class and could formulate answers and work through problems, but would then fall to pieces during tests. Or those children who couldn’t work against the clock. They just needed more time to process the questions. Or those children who didn’t have good memories. They had revised and revised but still managed to struggle and ‘fail’ because they just couldn’t quite remember the facts when they needed to. It all seems so unfair! Currently, there are more changes in the pipeline for our school-aged children, none of which seem to be dealing with the intense pressure from early testing. So for the moment, our only option is support our children who may be feeling overwhelmed and anxious.
Here are some of my top tips for dealing with an anxious child:
Before you jump in and try to solve all of the problems, or worse, deny that there is a problem, just sit and listen to your child. Really listen and find out what they are worried about. Is it because they don’t understand the subject, or they are worried about their memory or they can’t talk to their teacher? By listening sympathetically, you will be able to pinpoint their main cause of worry and name it. Children can then begin to feel like they have ownership over their own thoughts and actions if they can name the reason they are feeling the way they do.
Reassuring your child doesn’t always help.
Telling your child “There’s nothing to worry about. You’ll be fine,” doesn’t usually help and there is a scientific reason for this. Your anxious child desperately wants to believe you, but their brain won’t let them. During periods of angst or extreme worry, your child’s amygdala is triggered and puts it into a flight, fight or freeze mode. One by-product is that the prefrontal cortex — or more logical part of the brain — gets put on hold while the more automated emotional brain (amygdala) takes over. In other words, it is really hard for your child to think clearly, make reasoned decisions or even remember basic facts. Instead of reassuring your child, empathise. Tell them that you understand that exams and tests can be extremely nerve-wracking and you will be there to support them through it.
Work on different calming strategies.
There are a multitude of different exercises out there to help your anxious child and you can work together to find a few that really work for them. For example, you could try controlled breathing techniques as simple as inhaling for 4 counts and exhaling for 7. Counting backwards from 10 can help just before a test or an exam. Asking your child to visualise their favourite, safe place can also help, particularly if they struggle sleeping. Talk this through with them and ask them to describe things in detail. What are the colours like, the smells, the textures? The more detail they provide, the more vivid the picture will be when they try to visualise it when they are feeling anxious. Ask them to create their own personal affirmation they can repeat to themselves when they are in a stressful situation. For example, it could be “I can do this!” or “I feel calm and focussed.” The more they repeat the positive statement, the more their brain will ‘believe’ the statement and begin to embody it.
Worrying is normal.
Remind your child that everyone worries at one point or another. Worrying is a coping mechanism and is useful for short bursts of time. However, we cannot let our anxiousness get out of control because it will then have a detrimental effect on our ability to learn, play and rest. More often than not, your child can’t control the situation they are in, but they can control their reaction to it.
Our thoughts are just that…thoughts.
By using mindfulness techniques, children can understand that their thoughts are not facts. If they think ‘I am going to fail my SATs’, they need to be reminded that that is just a thought in their head and it’s not a fact. One exercise I do when working with anxious children is ask them to imagine that their thoughts are leaves falling from a tree as they sit in their treehouse. In their mind’s eye, they watch their thought-leaves, gently fall from the trees. They don’t judge the thoughts or try to catch them, they just notice and observe and let them float gently down towards the ground.
Focus on the ‘now’.
Focussing on the past or the future can actually exacerbate anxiety. Research shows that coming back to the present can help alleviate this tendency. One effective method of doing this is to practice mindfulness exercises. Ask your child to focus on one thing at a time; it could be their breathing, a piece of art-work, a sound or eating a piece of fruit whilst noticing the taste and smell sensations. This helps focus their attention and calm their mind.
Create a list.
You and your child can work together to produce a list of strategies to help when your child is feeling particularly anxious. This could be a physical list that they keep in their backpack or pocket. Sometimes just knowing that it’s there will help alleviate some stress. Alternatively, a mental list for older children can be equally helpful. Talk about it and discuss the list in a matter-of-fact way. After a day at school, ask if they used any of the strategies. Did they work? If not, then work together to find another strategy that does. Keep the list alive so eventually it becomes embedded in your child’s memory and using the calming techniques become second nature to them.
Remind them of your unconditional love.