Summer, our favourite time of year – Exam Season!

Difficult times in our lives can linger long in our memories. And come back to bite us at times. Take exams. In some cases the very word “exams” can activate our stress response! Does it yours?

If you or colleagues of yours have teenage children you’ll know that now is the exam season! The merry-go-round that starts with annual practice exams picks up pace through the GCSE, A Level and university years. And each year it raises stress levels for children and parents alike!

The impact of this annual exam season on the workplace has never been quantified as far as I know. But I suspect that if workers are worried about their family in any way they are not performing at peak capacity. And the exam season does cause problems. Let’s look at last year’s GCSE exams.

The 2018 GCSE exams caused huge anxiety in students. Over 500 school leaders were surveyed and they reported that these exams increased stress levels on their students so much that 86% said they led to panic attacks and sleepless nights; two thirds said it led to depression, extreme fatigue and self-harming. And 40% said it led to suicidal thoughts in their students.

I prepared students for exams for 36 years and saw first-hand the damaging effects of exam worry on students as well as their parents. Sadly, some students were so stressed they couldn’t even sit their exams!

With the recent changes in GCSE the situation has got worse. The NSPCC reported that there was a 15% increase in teens worried about exam results having counselling sessions with Childline in 2017-18 compared to the previous year.

How sad is this comment from a history teacher in Norfolk? “The new GCSEs have broken my best students, left some with serious stress-induced illnesses, and isolated the majority, leaving them completely apathetic towards their own learning. My lunch times are filled with crying students who feel they are not doing enough, despite doing full days at school and revising until 1am every single day. They have heart palpitations and panic attacks and migraines and they are all so, so tired.”

And this from a Gloucestershire teenager? She told the Guardian she believed about 50% of her Year group suffered from mental health problems. “I know that everyone struggles with the exams and the importance of them. However, the new courses have amplified the pressure and surely they shouldn’t be causing my fellow students to have suicidal thoughts.”

The Independent newspaper led a piece with this headline: “GCSE results 2018: Academic anxiety greater source of student stress than body image concerns, says former government adviser.”

Exam pressure on our children is real. This is felt in the whole family. And, I believe, it affects the parents’ workplace performance. It’s an issue that highlights the myriad of ways that stress hits our economy. For example, if your child is having constant ‘meltdowns’ about their revision, then you’re highly unlikely to be the calmest person to work with.    

This series focuses on stress and aims to offer lots of really practical, easy, fast, portable techniques and tips that work. All advice is supported by modern science and all make a positive difference to a person’s life and their productivity. The emotional well-being of our workers  is important to us all.

Part 1

How you as parents can help

A multi-pronged approach is essential, especially now as the revision season has started for most. I offer here a couple of workable, easy to do, fast and effective techniques in the following five areas. Discussion on what your teen would like their parents to do rather than imposition of what you think they should be doing is best. Your aim here is to do as much as you are able and allowed by your teen to do and do it with consistency, a ready smile and efficiency.

If many or all of these have been done already, then smile and be proud!

1. Planning

  • Ensure all necessary notes are present, ideally sorted into piles by subject alongside one revision book per subject if desired. This will mean checking through each examination syllabus (or specification) to see if there are any gaps in the schoolwork. If there are, plug them by contacting parents of other children or going through the relevant textbook or revision book and get it sorted.
  • Draw up a realistic revision schedule which breaks each day into time segments with those allocated for revision filled with the topic of a subject that is to be revised. I’d love this to be pinned on the wall somewhere and maybe even colour-coded! Ticking off a box when done is great for well-being.
  • How to revise is important and a variety of approaches is recommended to stave off boredom. Condensing notes on a topic to a single sheet of A4 or A5 using lots of colour is really the key process for most and these can be used to test themselves or you can test them, if they let you. Walking around, reading aloud their notes in funny voices, listening on their headphones to their recorded notes as they walk outside, and mind maps are some of the many ways to learn the knowledge.

2. Diet

  • Help your child eat well by offering meals and snacks that keep to these guidelines for about 80% of the time.
  • Eating the following foods will help reduce stress and boost memory retention: oatmeal, oily fish, eggs, dark chocolate, nuts, seeds, strawberries and red peppers.
  • Encourage them to avoid refined sugars, white carbs and caffeine.
  • In addition, recommend that they are hydrated fully – this means drinking sufficient water and herbal teas until their urine is clear and not smelly.

3. Exercise

  • Try to ensure regular exercise breaks of at least 10-20 minutes of a preferred activity be built into the schedule. This can be walking, jogging, martial arts, cycling, pilates or anything they enjoy.
  • Talk about the benefits of getting the body de-stressed by stretching and research a few exercises that you can then demonstrate to them. The hope is that before and during every revision session gentle, careful stretches are undertaken. These can be just a minute or so in length.
  • Focus these stretches on the hands and fingers; shoulders, neck and head; and eyes. 

4. Relaxation

  • As the brain takes about 25% of the oxygen we take in and is only about 3% of our body weight it’s obvious the brain needs oxygen to revise successfully. Here are a few breathing exercises that can also work well in the exam room.
  • Taking a few, slow, deep, full breaths – in through the nostrils and expand the chest, abdomen and stomach as fully as possible. On the out breath let the air leave from the mouth in a controlled manner and collapse the stomach first, then the abdomen and chest. The aim is to have a wave-like motion with this mindful breathing.
  • Breath in for a silent count of 4, hold it for a silent count of 4, then out for a count of 4 and then hold it for 4 again. Repeat a few times.
  • Breath in with control for a count of 6, hold it for a count of 8 and then exhale  with control for a count of 10. Repeat a few times.

5. Sleep

  • Obviously sleep is vital to successful revision and frequently disrupted during this time. The advice on planning, diet, relaxation and exercise will all help greatly here.
  • Getting your teen outside daily for some sunshine, fresh air and listening to the sounds in Nature are great ways to help raise their level of essential sleep-inducing chemicals.
  • Encourage your teen to adopt a regular soothing bedtime routine and going to bed (and waking up) at about the same time every night (morning) is crucial. The ideal routine should include tidying the workspace, get all notes ready for the next day, have a lightish meal, have a warm shower or bath, listen to something relaxing, and stretch a little.
  • This might be difficult but try to ensure your child keeps off electronic gadgets for an hour before bed and keep them out of their bedroom.

6. Envisioning

  • This may be slightly odd for some parents. But the power of the imagination is used in many walks of life.
  • See success. By this I mean I want you, the parent, to sit still with your eyes closed for 5-10 minutes every day. See your child in your imagination working with focus and success at their revision and in the exam room. I want you to see you helping your child by helping them eat well, perhaps walking with them outside, maybe even exercising with them, by encouraging them, by testing them with sensitivity and so on. And then I want you to envision the opening of the envelope and seeing their happy face and feel a smile of satisfaction appear on yours. Banish any negative thoughts that might appear and focus on the scenes of success.

Your role as a parent at this time is multi-faceted (it always is though!) including being:

  • an administrative assistant  – for example, helping to produce a timetable of revision, supplying all the tools needed to revise well.
  • an alchemist – to produce the right conditions for the “good” chemicals to be produced by your child (especially serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin) and to reduce the production of the “bad”, stress chemicals (especially cortisol and adrenaline).
  • a banker – for example, paying for books, stationary, tutoring and any exercise costs.
  • a bucket – for example, when they wish to throw a fit or a huge moan at you, you can catch it! And buckets can’t take offence by what they’re given.
  • a cook – ensuring your child is fed and watered appropriately, with the odd treat please.
  • a counsellor – to listen, support and advise about a whole host of issues that might appear and may well be blown up out of proportion.
  • an events co-ordinator – to research what’s going on nearby which might be of value, helping your child to unwind and laugh.
  • a hugger – to know when a hug is needed and to be available and willing to hug as this releases that wonderful oxytocin.
  • a nagger – actually, whatever you say and however you say it you’ll probably be accused of nagging!
  • a sage – to know everything and to offer wise counsel in a non-judgemental manner about virtually anything!

Perhaps the main role you have is to try to take as much from your teen as possible, so they can focus on the task and be as relaxed as possible.

If you are calm and supportive in your actions and words at this time it will be noticed. It will help your child and you.

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