Five Scientifically-Backed Ways to Reduce Exam Stress in Children and Teenagers

16/05/2016 10:53

Children are arguably under more stress than ever before; more tests (SATs) in primary school and pressures brought about by social media contribute to mental health issues in children long before they reach their teens.


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We can teach children to handle SATs, GCSEs, A levels and other challenges without the stress affecting their health/wellbeing.

A small amount of stress can be good for us - the release of cortisol, the stress hormone, enhances performance. Too much cortisol, however, is damaging and this article will show you 5 scientifically-backed ways to reduce the amount of cortisol in the body, for children and adults.

1. Laugh - a lot!

Laughter really is the best medicine! A sustained period of laughter releases endorphins, the body's natural painkiller and mood elevator. Laughter, like other forms of physical exercise, is also a way to get rid of excess cortisol.

You can encourage your child to laugh daily by spending time together watching funny TV shows, funny YouTube clips, and doing Laughter Yoga together. Laughter Yoga allows you to laugh for no reason.

The simulated laughter usually turns into real laughter, but even if it doesn't, the effects will still be the same; your mind may know the difference, but your body doesn't!

2. Meditate

When my colleague Jayne Snell was ill with blood cancer, she found herself unable to breathe one day. Her doctors told her that her illness hadn't deteriorated and that her breathing difficulties were stress-related. Despite having always thought of meditation as a bit 'woo-woo' and 'out there', she bought a meditation CD and, from the very first time she meditated, she never struggled to breathe again!

Meditation doesn't require any special skill or equipment. There are many ways to meditate and the simplest meditations are breathing ones, which can last as little as one minute. In the video below (at 42 seconds), you can see Year 4 children practising a 3-minute meditation Jayne taught them in her Wellbeing session as part of our 'Resilience Wellbeing Success' programme.

3. Do something for someone else - 'be selfishly selfless'

Altruism and kindness are, in a way, very selfish behaviours, because they make us feel great!
Kindness and altruism help us feel like we belong to something bigger than ourselves and this sense of belonging reduces our stress levels. There is also evidence that altruistic acts can stimulate the production endorphins, and altruism has been associated with improved health and immunity.

There are many ways to encourage your child to be kind and altruistic. First, lead by example: Perhaps you can volunteer in your child's school, or a local charity, or simply show your child you are kind towards others. Encourage your child to donate old toys to those less fortunate or encourage him or her to carry out 5 random acts of kindness per day - these don't have to be big acts.

One of the great ways your child can help others is by helping his or her friends with school work / revision. By explaining a topic or subject to another child, he or she will not only feel the benefits of altruism outlined above, but will also become more confident in the subject, thus reducing stress in the lead-up to the test / exam and ultimately even leading to better grades.

4. Sprinkle 'Little Happiness Ingredients' over your life!

The 'Little Happiness Ingredients' are the things that make your heart sing. They are life's equivalent of using salt, pepper, herbs and spices in your food to lift its flavours.

It's easy, especially in the lead up to SATs and other tests / exams, to forget to make time to do things we enjoy, but taking a break to do something enjoyable will actually help your child concentrate better and be more productive.

Encourage your child to keep up with their hobbies, especially when they're revising and as they get older and school life becomes more demanding.

Any activity that promotes the social and emotional development and well-being of your child will not only improve his or her enjoyment of life, but improve their academic achievements, too.

5. Embrace challenges!

Much of the effect of stress on our bodies and minds depends on our perception of what stress does to us. It is therefore important to minimise the "this is stressful and that's bad for you" messages our children hear when it comes to SATs and other tests / exams.

Additionally, one key way to build resilience is to actually experience challenges. In this article in the New Yorker, Maria Konnikova explains how just the right amount of stressors allow us to become more resilient. She also cites George Bonanno: "Events are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic." If you can encourage your child to see tests / exams as an opportunity for personal growth and learning, they are less likely to cause him or her debilitating stress levels.

My colleagues and I teach all of the above, and more, on the Resilience Wellbeing Success programme, so if your child is in a school running the programme, they are already learning about this; reinforcing these messages at home will further embed their learning.

If you have any thoughts or comments regarding this article, or you are a teacher interested in bringing RWS to your school, please get in touch.

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This is a shortened version of an article originally posted on the RWS website on 12th May 2016.