When I write a blog, I like it to be practical, helpful, and based in science (but not too science-y!). Parents and carers are busy people and if I can make a life a little easier at exam time, then I am happy to do so.
Exam stress is common of course, and, to a certain extent, normal, and can even be a bit helpful. What we want to avoid, though, are extremes of stress, or of any other behaviour or emotions.
Stress can be Good or Bad
Understanding that stress can be good or bad is a useful place to start when talking to your teen about exams. Stress is a part of our Fight or Flight reaction, and we all need that to keep us safe and alive in tricky situations, like when we absent-mindedly step out into the road and pull back quickly to avoid that cyclist.
We also need good stress responses to keep us alert and focused during the exam itself; a little bit of adrenaline goes a long way to keep us on task.
Bad stress is when we have too much adrenaline too much of the time (when we don’t need it). Our fight or flight reaction here is activated even though we are just sitting on the bus, in a class, or trying to get to sleep. This anxiety can be unhelpful.
I actually wrote a mini book for students on Anxiety, and managing it, which might also be useful for older teens in general. Addressing excessive ‘fight or flight’ stress reactions and having strategies, like distraction techniques or mindfulness, can help with this aspect.
Moving onto specific exam related stress, it may be helpful to know that there are approaches that will help all teens, whether or not they also try strategies to deal with anxiety or panic symptoms.
In this blog I will talk about; healthy approaches to revision, planning your learning and understand the most effective ways to revise and learn.
Healthy Approaches to Revision
· Build a routine. The body and brain like nothing more than knowing what is going to happen and when. This radically reduces stress (we become anxious when life is uncertain).
· Sleep enough, and at the right times. Teen sleep patterns are different to adult sleep patterns, so in short, let them sleep about 9-10 hours if that’s what they need, getting them up by 10.30am if it’s not a school day. Of interest, the first half of the night’s sleep is better for fact retention, and the second half is better for creative/ problem solving!
· For more info on teen sleep read my blog here.
· Diet is important but the jury is still out on the exact ‘exam supporting’ diet. What we do definitely know is that a daily breakfast is essential, regular meals are recommended and so is fresh fruit and veg. Avoid fast food or poor quality foods where possible.
· Hydrate! The brain needs water!
· Mute negativity on social media or people who bring you down. Take a temporary break from anyone who drones on about ‘how many hours’ they did today or how they ‘don’t know anything’. It isn’t helpful and it is distracting.
· It is vital to draw up a plan for each day of revision and populate it with not only topics to be covered but meal breaks, rest, fun, and sleep. Add exercise breaks, snuggles/ walks with the dog and gaming time if that helps.
· There are multiple benefits to having a proper plan or chart, and apart from being able to ensure that topics are given the revision time they need, it will allow your teen to simply follow the routine and not have to think about when breaks are needed, or a meal is due.
The most effective ways to revise and learn- lessons for your teen!
(mainly sourced from How We Learn by Benedict Carey)
· Varying your study location is good. Encourage your teen to revise in different places e.g., kitchen, library, office and so on. This means that when they are in the exam room a new location doesn’t subconsciously distract their brain.
· Break up and space out study sessions. Don’t try to work for 6-8 hours straight. Plan that revision routine as above and block out rest time.
· Self-testing works. Read something, then write down what you can recall even if it is minimal. Repeat and repeat. It goes in better than just copying stuff out.
· Read and review notes but don’t just copy stuff out. See above. Do mini tests and past papers.
· Study breaks are good. Work for an hour max, then take a 10–15-minute break e.g., half an episode of Brooklyn 99! Use the break to do something completely non-academic- it is proven to help academic recall. Listen to music, chat to someone, but don’t revise all the time.
· Memorizing works best when facts are memorized days 0,2, & 7. So, for heavily fact-based tests or exams, learn and practice them on these days.
· Sleep! Revision that is done one day, then ‘slept on’ then repeated the next will stay with you much longer. Sleep ‘seals in’ leaning and memories.
My aim has been to use science to help your teen (and you) to manage a potentially difficult period and get the best academic result that they can. It is however important to prioritise rest, sleep, fun activities, and push back against perfectionism and obsessiveness at every opportunity. Encourage them to avoid extremes of revision behaviour and be alongside them if they need to rant or decompress.
We can’t do it for them, but we can help them to revise healthily. They will get through it, but we want them to learn lifelong revision skills, and this blog may hopefully help.
If you need more advice, or want Top Tips for how to cope with waiting for exam results then check out the Young Minds website and their parent helpline.
I also love the Study Buddy if you need a more structured planning system.
You’ve got this!