How can you tell if your child is suffering from exam stress? A child psychologist tells us how to spot the warning signs. We also offer parents seven strategies to tackle exam stress in their kids.

It’s that time of the year again. The dreaded ‘E’ word makes its final appearance for the year. We are referring to exams, of course. They have become the arch nemesis of parents and children alike. Has your child succumbed to exam stress yet? But wait – do you know what the telltale signs to look out for are? We spoke to Dr Sanveen Kang-Sadhnani, Principal Clinical Psychologist & Centre Manager at Thomson Paediatric Centre, to find out how to spot signs of stress in children and what to do about them.

How can I tell whether my child is stressed?

For children, stress can manifest itself through changes in behaviour and even feeling physically ill. Common changes include:

  • acting irritable or moody
  • withdrawing from activities that used to be pleasurable
  • routinely expressing worries
  • complaining more than usual about school
  • displaying surprisingly fearful reactions
  • clinging to a parent or teacher
  • sleeping too much or too little
  • eating too much or too little
  • crying

Stress can also appear in physical symptoms such as stomach aches, nausea and headaches. If a child makes excessive trips to the sick bay or complains of frequent stomach aches or headaches (despite the absence of a medical condition), or if these complaints increase, he may be experiencing significant stress. You may also observe negative self-talk such as “I am going to fail” or “I am never good at Maths.”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you and your children could wave goodbye to exam stress? Well, you can when you adopt these seven strategies all year round!

(See also: Help Your Child Cope with Exam Stress)

1. Teach your child to study smart

little girl thinking in the classroom

Teach your children to study smart rather than hard! Come up with a study game plan by putting into action the following:

  • specify the date your child will begin to prepare for his exams
  • create a daily schedule of tasks your child wants to accomplish during exam preparation
  • create a detailed to-do-list (keep a close eye on what is really important)
  • enumerate the books your child needs to read (or better still, just the important sections your child really needs to know for the exams)
  • itemise the various tasks and exercises your child wants to do as part of his exam preparation

Your game plan should also include teaching your child study techniques that work for her, such as using mind maps, and also reminding her to allocate time for subjects that she is weaker in right from the beginning. Help your child to produce a revision timetable early on to cover all the topics covered for the exams. “Ticking off each topic once it’s done can help revision seem more manageable,” advises Dr. Sanveen.

How else can you help junior study smart? Remind him to take frequent breaks so that he returns to the task refreshed. Don’t forget to schedule in work, play and rest periods. While you are creating a schedule, bear in mind that shorter study sessions are much more effective than long ones. And what about target-setting? Dr Sanveen says to make sure your child is setting realistic targets. “Trying to cram in too much creates stress,” she says.

(See also: How Parents Can Help Kids Prepare for Exams)

2. More tuition? Not necessarily! 

Japanese Student with Tutor

Extra tuition lessons during exam season – yay or nay? This depends on your child’s individual needs. If your child has requested for the additional support, then you can consider whether the extra coaching will truly benefit your child. Also ask yourself, “For which subjects does my child really need extra help?” The last thing your child needs during his exam period is extra homework dished out by tutors for all subjects! It’s important for parents to acknowledge that not all children need additional support right before their exams. “However, some children and families do go ahead with such arrangements due to increased anxieties surrounding being tested,” explains Dr Sanveen.

(See also: Why I Believe in Tuition)

3. Continue non-academic activities

asian child standing on hands outdoors

Ballet, swimming, football or even golf – whatever it is that your child enjoys outside of school hours or during the weekends, let him continue it even when exams are nearing. Yes, children need down time. It is crucial that they get time to relax even during the exam period. Increased fatigue, both mental and physical, is known to impact academic performance according to Dr Sanveen.

You should also get your child to exercise regularly! Not only will it make your child feel more energetic, it also increases confidence, prevents one from becoming tense and gets rid of tiredness. Oh, and it also facilitates a good night’s sleep!

(See also: Fitness for Kids: It’s Never Too Early!)

4. Talk to your children about exam stress

Father and son

So you would like to verbally reassure your child that everything is going to be alright, but you have no idea where to begin? Fret not. Here are some tips for you to start following right away!

  • Share with your child that stress is normal and feeling stressed before an exam is acceptable
  • Highlight to your children their individual strengths and weakness; remind them that everyone has weaknesses
  • Manage your child’s expectations and talk to them about the consequences that they fear
  • Reassure them that so long as they try their best and continue doing so, everything will be okay!
  • Teach them relaxation exercises such as controlled breathing
  • Teach your kids to listen to their bodies (E.g.: while it’s normal for a child’s stomach to feel jumpy on the first day of school, leaving class because their stomach hurts or waking up repeatedly with a headache is a sign there’s too much going on)
  • Prepare your children to deal with mistakes when things are not going as planned

5. Teach your child crucial revision strategies

Drawing with pencil

Exam stress can be fought off with a quality revision plan. Dr Sanveen tells us how parents and children can work hand-in-hand to eventually be as cool as a cucumber when those final exams come around. It’s as easy as A, B, C and in this case, D! You’ll want to jot down this handy revision guide!

(A) Provide space, resources and a climate for revision

Make it easier for your child to study by ensuring that their workspace is comfortable and quiet. Throw in some classical music in the background if that’s your child’s cup of tea!

(B) Come up with a revision plan

  1. Create a revision timetable
    Start revising at least five or six weeks before exams are due to start. Do be realistic about the goals you set in the time your child has available, and remember that you need to allow breaks now and then.
  2. Balance your subjects
    Allocate topics to days, and make sure you have enough time for everything your child wants to revise. Balance the time you have available between your various subjects. Do not neglect subjects your child finds particularly easy or difficult.
  3. Identify key topics
    For each subject, identify which topics to revise. Select topics based on:
    • The content of the subject
    • Past examination papers
    • Your child’s own interests and abilities

(C) Sort out all revision materials

Textbooks, workbooks, worksheets, notes and past year exam papers – categorise and arrange them all neatly so that your child is able to find them immediately when he needs them. Revision steps should comprise note taking, memorising as well as practicing and drafting model answers for applicable subjects.

(D) Revise all year round

Revision should not be a last-minute attempt to make up for poor study habits in the previous eight months. As one topic quickly succeeds another in each subject, it’s easy to forget previous work all too soon. And then there seems to be little time to revise. Don’t want your child to be trapped in such a situation? Get them to start revision early then!

6. Ensure that your child gets enough sleep

sleeping boy

Trying to ‘cram’ the night before an exam is generally a bad idea. This may lead to panic and might even affect performance the following day. Ideally, it’s much better to have a relaxing evening the night before each exam. Sufficient sleep should also become a priority and part of a daily routine.

Dr Sanveen recommends making sufficient sleep a family priority. “Understanding the importance of getting enough sleep and how sleep affects the overall health of parents and children is the first step towards making sleep a family priority,” she explains. Parents or caregivers need to determine the amount of sleep each family member needs and take steps to ensure their individual needs are met. Every family member must make a good night’s sleep a regular part of his daily schedule in order for junior to follow suit!

Dr Sanveen suggests setting up a routine that will ensure school-life balance for your child. “Embrace good sleep habits.  Regular bedtime routines, creating a quiet and comfortable bedroom, and adhering to appropriate bedtime and wake times can go a long way to better sleep. Televisions and computers need to be out of the bedroom and caffeine should not be part of a child’s diet,” she says.

“Learn to recognise sleep problems. The most common sleep problems in children include difficulty falling asleep, nighttime awakenings, snoring, stalling and resisting going to bed, having trouble breathing, and loud or heavy breathing while sleeping.  These sleep problems can be evident in daytime behaviour such as being overly tired, sleepy or cranky.”

If you think there’s an issue, talk to your child’s doctor about his sleep. Rest assured, most sleep related problems are easily treated. And just how much sleep should a primary school-going be getting? According to Dr Sanveen, experts recommend 10 – 11 hours of sleep for children between the ages of seven and 12. Is your child getting enough?

7. Don’t add on to your child’s exam stress

Depressed School boy

“Don’t worry, it’s not a big deal. It’s just an exam, and whatever happens we still…”

Ever caught yourself saying that to your child in a bid to make her feel better? It would be more ideal to listen to your child’s fears and anxieties. Minimising their challenges may leave them feeling invalidated and as such, unlikely to seek help when it is required in the future. It might also be sending them the message that they are giving you additional problems to tend to. What else should you refrain from saying to your child?

“Remember how well your sister did?”

Not cool! Do not compare your child to his sibling for this might demoralise him further.

“You should have started studying earlier. Next time, prepare sooner.”

Don’t jump right into problem solving. Listen and validate emotions first. “Sometimes, when we see that a child is upset or frustrated, our first instinct as parents is to jump in and fix the problem,” relates Dr Sanveen. Problem solving usually involves a lot of questions and instructions on what to do, all of which are very intimidating. As Singaporeans, we are very efficient in problem solving. Whilst that is important, it is equally as important to learn to connect with your child’s emotions before you set out to solve the issue at hand.

“Exam Stress in Kids is REAL!” say these Singaporean mums

41-year-old Administration Manager, Seeneth Kahlid, shares with us how her son, Mohammad Iqbal, 12, succumbed to exam stress before his PSLE.

“I first realised it when he kept making frequent trips to the toilet citing a stomachache. His diet had changed and he was less chatty than his usual self. All of these signs were new to me as Iqbal had never exhibited such behaviour till a few weeks before his PSLE.” Did Iqbal ever voice out about the exam stress he was undergoing? Yes, he did after he was asked how he was doing. “He was stressed because he was afraid that he might disappoint us since we had all gone through the PSLE before and found it a breeze. He was also not sleeping well,” says Seeneth.

So how did Seeneth go about easing her son’s exam stress? She explains that she is grateful for Iqbal’s grandmother staying with them as she always ensures that the family has enough sleep and proper nutrition. “I wouldn’t know how else we would have survived without her help, considering that Iqbal’s two older brothers also had exams and tests to deal with!”

38-year-old teacher, Eileen Ang, is a mother of three; Aden, 3, Kayden, 7, and Brandon, 11. She says exam stress manifests in her eldest son, Brandon, in physical symptoms like diarrhoea. Although the 11-year-old has never verbally expressed his stress to anyone, Eileen feels that Brandon is stressed because he feels that he can’t match up to his parents’ expectations of him. However, she reassures him by telling him to just give his best in every exam. “I also advise my son to sleep early, eat well, and motivate him with our holiday plans!” That sounds like a great way to take some exam stress off kids!

When a child has older siblings (or even younger ones), parents might find it difficult to prevent themselves from comparing their academic performances even though it’s not advisable to. How are Singaporean parents faring in that aspect? Rather well, actually. Eileen refrains from comparing Brandon’s performance in school to that of his siblings or classmates. Seeneth says, “We have never compared but we have highlighted the challenges Iqbal’s elder brothers faced and how they overcame them. Also, in order to encourage him, we always reiterated how proud his late grandfather and late uncle were of our three boys’ successes – not just in their studies, but all aspects of life.”

Article extracted from Motherhood Website:
Singapore Motherhood, 12 October 2016, ‘Exam Stress in Kids How to Recognise The Signs Plus 7 Strategies to Combat It!’, http://singaporemotherhood.com/articles/2016/10/exam-stress-kids-signs-strategies/