Teachers and parents: How to support students during this exam season

The exam season is in full gear. This is usually a time of doubt and worries — for teachers, children and their parents. Even as more emphasis is placed on competency-based education, there’s no way around the reality that high-stakes exams like these are a big deal. How can teachers and parents alike support students in this season?

In most cases, exam anxiety manifests itself through physical symptoms ranging from simple “butterflies in the stomach”, to more serious symptoms, including headache, nausea, and light-headedness, as well as emotional and cognitive symptoms, like feelings of helplessness and difficulty concentrating. Students with serious test-anxiety may experience these symptoms even if they’ve worked hard to prepare for the test and know the material; they’ll simply freeze or blank once the test is in front of them.

Having a better understanding of why a student is experiencing test anxiety can be hugely helpful in figuring out the best way to manage it. Generally, when students have an underlying fear of failure, when they feel extreme pressure to do well, or when they’ve had poor previous testing experiences, anxiety usually takes the better of them. Some students will be able to articulate their feelings better than others, but regardless, asking the question will provide valuable clues as to what will help calm a student down and allay their fears.

It may also help to lower expectations at this point. Having high expectations without providing appropriate support is akin to a car having powerful accelerators and no steering wheel. It is guaranteed to crash. In the grand scheme of things, no single test is going to define a student’s academic career, or have that significant of an impact on their future. After all, it’s just an exam, right? As an adult, it’s probably much easier for you to understand this perspective than it is for your students—you’ve had more experience with both failure and success, realise they both happen, and know that no matter what, the world keeps turning. Share this perspective with your children/students regularly.

You may also want to hold back on unusual tantrums in this period. The exam season is an emotional rollercoaster, with a series of highs and lows. How well parents react to their child’s lows may well determine how many highs they have. Children are very adept at identifying how their parents view failure. Those who see mistakes as opportunities to learn, instead of personal judgments, are more likely to develop a growth mindset. But those wrapped up in patterns of negative thinking will most likely focus on all the mistakes they could make, everything that could go wrong, and how catastrophic a bad score could be. Shift their focus by helping them reflect on some positive past experiences.

It will be equally helpful to empower students with simple strategies to reduce anxiety. For many students with test anxiety, the truly difficult moments don’t hit until they’ve sat down to take their test. Basic anxiety-reducing techniques can be a big help for these students. Encourage your learners to practice simple deep breathing exercises, use positive self-talk and mantras, or do seated stretches to release tension once the test is underway.

The examination period is an understandably stressful time, and very few of us can honestly say that we don’t get at least a little nervous before sitting an exam. This being said, it is important to allay student’s fears by providing them with simple strategies to overcome, teaching them to embrace failure and supporting them emotionally throughout the season.