This marks the final edition in a three-part series for parents seeking to share some of the science behind learning and revision, alongside practical strategies parents and carers can use at home to help ensure their child enters the exam hall feeling as calm and prepared as possible.
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Anxiety in the run up to a big exam is completely normal, and a feeling all of us will be familiar with. But for some children, exam anxiety can start to impact their day-to-day lives and ultimately prevent them performing at their best on the day.
In the final part of our series on supporting your child through exams, we’ll look at ways of coping with anxiety not just in the run up to exams, but any time they are confronted with a stressful situation.
Understanding why we react with anxiety to exams, and other similar events, is an important first step to managing that reaction. The part of our brain that controls our fear response, the amygdala, hasn’t changed much since our days roaming the plains avoiding sabre-toothed cats. The reasoning parts of the brain know that, logically, an exam doesn’t pose a threat to life — instead, the threat is failure, or at least not meeting your potential.
However, the nuance of this message is lost by the time it reaches the amygdala; instead, it hears ‘DANGER’ and reacts accordingly, without knowing the severity of the threat. The amygdala then does everything it can to save your life: speeds up your heartbeat so your limbs are primed and ready to run; makes your breathing shallow so a potential predator can’t see you hiding; prepares you to fight, flooding you with adrenaline, or to freeze until the threat has passed.
These responses would be incredibly helpful if you really were facing a physical threat to life, but when actually all you need to be able to do is calmly focus on one task, your brain is in some ways working against you. There are two challenges we face when trying to deal with anxiety: the first is how to manage the fear response once it’s kicked in, and the second is how to prevent it kicking in to begin with. Let’s look at how.
Firstly, don’t be angry at your brain for reacting the way it has — it’s trying to keep you safe. The next steps are all about convincing it that everything is okay.
The common advice to take deep breaths is common for a reason: it’s the first step to telling your body that it can relax. In doing so, you are telling your brain ‘I don’t need to hide and be still anymore, the danger has passed.’
If your child is upset or anxious, have them take a deep breath in through their nose, counting slowly to five, hold it for a second, and then let the breath slowly out through their mouth, counting slowly to five. After several breaths in and out, start to focus on relaxing different parts of the body: let the shoulders drop, the forehead relax, and the feet rest gently on the floor.
There are many guided meditations and breathing exercises available for free on YouTube, or through the paid app Headspace — encourage your child to put one on and spend a few minutes every day thinking only about their breathing and relaxing their whole body so that, when it is needed, they are practised in controlling their fear response.
If at all possible, ask your child’s teacher if they can spend some time in the room where the exam will take place practising their breathing techniques. This will help them build positive, calming associations with that space. They might even sit with a teacher, talking through the exam routine and what will happen when they first enter the room. This may not always be possible — but the good news is visualisation strategies can be just as useful. An NLP [Neuro Linguistic Programming] technique known as the Circle of Excellence can be particularly effective for exams, but also works well when preparing for big presentations, competitions, or any other situation where you need to perform at your best under pressure. You can read more about the technique here, but the basic steps are outlined below.
1. Start by standing up, and imagining a circle on the floor in front of you. The circle could be made of light, or could be made of fire, depending on the state of mind you want to get into.
2. As you look at the circle, think again about the state of mind you want to get into: you might wish to feel calm and in control, or powerful and strong. Imagine a time when you felt that way — if you are doing this with your child, have them describe to you a situation or time when they felt that way. Alternatively, they might think of someone they associate with that state of mind: a friend, a fictional character, or a famous person they admire.
3. Try to recreate in your mind, or have your child describe to you, what it’s like to be in that state of mind: how do you stand? What emotions are you feeling? What are you thinking? What are you doing with your arms and legs? Then step forward into the circle on the ground, taking that state of mind with you.
4. Stand in the circle for as long as you can maintain the feeling of strength, calmness, or power that you created in step 3. When you feel it start to fade, step back out of the circle.
5. Now imagine that the circle is shrinking, until it is small enough to pick up. Imagine you want to carry it with you — maybe you’ll put it into your pocket, or clip it round your neck or wrist like a watch or a piece of jewellery. Carry it with you until you need it again, and then go back to step 1.
Avoiding fear and anxiety from taking over in the first place is about changing your brain’s response to an event — when it comes to exams, where there is little opportunity to practice ahead of the real thing, visualisation is key.
Above all, keep reminding your child that their brain is on their side and is trying to keep them safe; understanding why a fear-based response happens is the first step to challenging how their brain reacts. Breathing and visualisation techniques allow us to use the logical, thinking part of our brains to alter the response of the instinctive, animal reaction, and are tried-and-tested techniques used by high performers the world over. And as with anything, the more they practise, the better they will get at maintaining calm in the face of stress.