Pressure on pupils to perform is relentless, and never more so at exam time. Andrew Halls, headmaster of King’s College School, Wimbledon and clinical psychologist Dr Nihara Krause give some advice on how parents can help their children stay ahead of the game.
How to overcome exam anxiety
The pressure to be perfect is not just an academic one, says Andrew Halls.
A few years ago, at the start of the autumn term, I congratulated a friendly, sporty boy on his GCSEs. He had got straight As. He said, ‘Thanks sir – but I feel I’ve let the school down.’ The fact he had no A*s made him feel he had somehow ‘failed’ – or, at any rate, failed us. He soon returned to his normal cheerfulness and a diet of rugby, cricket, hard work and good teaching ensured he had an excellent sixth-form before taking his place at Nottingham University.
Running successful schools is a balancing act – motivating young people, but not allowing them to feel oppressed by the sheer weight of our expectations, and indeed, their own. We know they can succeed but they are not sure, which can lead to crucifying levels of self-doubt.
Personal appearance, social groups, family background, concern about family members, and their own future in a troubled world are also vivid issues for many bright and ambitious young people. Instant communication and awareness of every tragedy across the world can make it harder for thoughtful, humane boys or girls to keep perspective.
After 33 years of teaching I have come up with seven pillars of pastoral wisdom to help our children make the most of their school years without burning out or feeling worthless:
1. Every child is different
Before leaping to an answer, diagnose the problem. Two pupils may have gone several weeks without handing in any work. For one, it may be laziness, but for the other it may be crippling perfectionism. Keep listening, keep thinking, keep responding, and keep caring.
2. School and home need to be talking the same language
Problems occur when parents and the school disagree over the child’s motivation or approach. This leads to a breakdown in trust and the child will damage themselves playing one off against the other.
3. Pastoral care
This must be of the highest priority, so the system must work and be humane. Are there enough trained staff involved who are managed constructively and able to provide continuity? What support do they get when things are difficult? Pupils must feel there is a colleague who listens to them and wants the best for them. Our house system creates a family at school with standards of behaviours, reward and punishment. Without this, a child is lost.
4. Keep them busy
A massive extra-curricular programme is essential with drama, music and the arts as well as sports. CCF and partnerships with local maintained schools help them to feel part of a team, which helps pupils to keep perspective. They need to know there is a whole world out there to be enjoyed and involved in and, especially, to make better. School leaders have a duty to help pupils see beyond the sometime obsessive microcosm of private school.
5. Learning support
This has been a real success story in our schools over the last 20 years, recognising how differently people learn. Individual advice can unlock so much that is wonderful and powerful. Schools need outstanding learning support staff.
6. Don’t indulge
Some schools confuse a liberal ethos with lazy or substandard work and behaviour. It may prevent a child burning out, but will lead to countless problems for others – including bullying, poor morale, and underachievement.
7. Sense of humour
Sometimes, when I meet a troubled child’s parents, I fear they have lost their sense of the ridiculous. However much we structure, pre-meditate and plan, things can and will go wrong. Children who bounce back do so because they know that misfortune has taught them another life skill – instead of knocking them for six. We need to help boys and girls develop the ability to ‘fail well’, to accept that things will go wrong, but to use that experience to grow. This is the basis of the True Grit conference at King’s this term, which must have hit a nerve as it sold out within a week.
Managing exam anxiety
A moderate degree of anxiety boosts performance, says Dr Nihara Krause.
It’s natural to feel anxious before an exam. However, some students report severe levels of crippling anxiety. In 2011 ChildLine confirmed increasing levels of stress in children and young people trying to cope with the pressures that accompany exams.
Anxiety arises when our appraisal of ourselves or the outcome of a situation is negative or uncertain. Our current academically highly competitive environment – which gives rise to children having to take ‘high status’ tests with a fear of what failure may mean – lends itself to heightened fear. Not only do children worry about the exam itself and the consequences of what it may mean to not fare well, but they also worry about not meeting parental and school expectations and about not doing as well as their friends. This anxiety is echoed by parental anxiety about their children’s academic prospects.
Pupils benefit from developing problem focused and emotion focused strategies to help manage exam anxiety.
Problem focused strategies
These help them to learn how to best prepare for an exam and includes some of the following ideas:
- Having a revision plan.
- Leaving time to learn – repetition helps us to remember.
- Asking if unsure.
- Understanding how you learn best, for example using revision notes, mind maps, memorising, meaningful learning, doing practice papers, working with someone else.
- Preparation definitely helps, even for the last minute learner.
- Following a routine.
- Focusing on what you are learning now rather than thinking about the final mark that you want to achieve.
- Starting with subjects you like learning and adding one new bit at a time.
- Trying not to leave work to build up.
Emotion focused strategies
Help us deal with exams positively through helpful thinking, which allows others to have their own worries, they don’t have to be yours and you shouldn’t compare yourself to them. Concentrate on your revision plans and ask for help when you need it. Talk to your family about any worries. Helpful thinking is an ‘I can do’ attitude.
To help you with this:
- Remind yourself of what you find interesting in your work and what you have got right.
- Concentrate on doing it to better yourself rather than being better than others. It’s not about being the best, it’s about doing your best.
- Catch negative thoughts such as ‘I’m going to fail’ and balance them with a positive idea such as ‘I am capable of success’.
- If you’ve got things wrong see them as things you can learn from.
- Try not to build scary future scenarios in your mind, focus on what’s working now.