Can sitting for an exam trigger physical responses such as a rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, and nausea? Yes it can! In fact, these responses are more common than we might expect, as 10 to 40 percent of all students are said to be susceptible to test anxiety.
Anxiety can also be contagious, and in a highly stressful situation, witnessing someone else’s outburst can trigger stress reactions in those nearby too. This means that your child could begin to panic — or even burst into tears or fly into a rage — after watching someone else in the exam hall do the same thing.
This is why learning to deal with anxiety should be an essential part of exam preparation. Below, we look at some stress-inducing thoughts that might be going through a child’s mind, before and during any test or exam. We also offer suggestions for managing these concerns, so that they don’t become paralysing.
“I’m not ready for this exam!”
This is a fear best dealt with before the exam, and ideally, at a point where there is still ample time for preparation.
Solution: Find out why your children feel unprepared for the exams. It might be helpful to begin with a scale from 1–10, and ask where they feel they are on this scale. You can also ask them to elaborate on what it means to be at a “1,” versus a “5” or a “10.” Based on their answers, you can work out together what needs to be done to “move up” the scale.
If children feel they lack practice or haven’t tackled specific revision tasks, these are easily resolved. However, if they are still having trouble grasping the material, teach them to admit this without shame — by openly saying, “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand.” Next, guide them to take charge of their learning by making their needs known. For instance, children can ask clarifying questions such as:
- “Could you repeat what you just said? I couldn’t catch that.”
- “I don’t understand. Could you explain it again, or give a different example?”
- “What does that word or term mean?”
- “I’m not sure if I’ve understood it correctly — did you mean this?”
Depending on how much time you have, set realistic work targets — e.g. to finish two timed practice papers per subject — and agree that this will suffice as preparation. If your children should still feel jittery or unprepared on the day of the exam, point out that the agreed-upon work has already been completed.
“I always do badly on tests. I’m not smart!”
Negative self-talk is damaging to children — it causes them to lose confidence, as well as the motivation to put in their best efforts for the exams.
Solution: If you hear your children making self-deprecating statements, it is very likely that they have internalised these beliefs. Prior to the exams, negative beliefs make it harder for children to carry out preparation work. And when children have negative thoughts during an exam, they may blank out or decide to throw in the towel.
To counter this, one technique to teach your child is “thought stopping,” where you issue a silent command to yourself to stop thinking negative thoughts. It is also helpful to replace negative thoughts with positive ones, such as:
- “I have learned new skills that I can use to do better in this exam.”
- “I have prepared for this exam and I’ll do my best, which is what matters.”
- “With more practice, I can be good at this subject too.”
In times of elevated stress, children can also use the “4-7-8” breathing technique, by keeping count as they breathe in for four seconds, hold their breath for seven seconds, and breathe out over eight seconds. Repeated over several cycles, this relaxation technique helps to regulate breathing, and prevents one from entering into “fight-or-flight” mode, where the body will begin to show physical signs of stress. It’s good to try this technique with your child at home, so that they can instantly call upon it when the situation arises.
“If I do badly in this exam, I’m doomed. Everyone will be disappointed!”
Despite our reassurance, children may still feel that exams determine their future paths. They may also feel the need to produce good grades, in order to earn or retain the respect of others.
Solution: Remind children that exams — even university exams — exist to gauge a student’s mastery of a subject. Some may mistakenly conflate exam performance with intelligence or talent, but there are enough people who have proven that one doesn’t need good grades to be successful in life. Reiterate the message to your child that exam results indicate how effectively one has studied, and not how “smart” a person is.
When discussing exam outcomes with your children, the most straightforward way is to outline the possibilities, which can be summed up as:
- Disappointing results
- Expected results
- Better-than-expected results
With national exams such as the PSLE or the O-Levels, it is true that disappointing results would narrow one’s options, while better-than-expected results would give one a wider spread of options. But if your child can look upon every option as an opportunity, there will always be room for growth and learning.
And finally, not all children are convinced that their family’s love for them is unconditional. Never fail to let your child know that he or she is highly valued as a person, no matter what results are brought home.
“I don’t know how to answer this question!”
Children who have put in the preparation work before an exam may be particularly thrown off by unexpected questions. If they are prone to anxiety, they may find it difficult to bounce back.
Solution: Teach children to expect a few surprises during any exam. Talk about how best to handle tricky questions — one way is to move on to the next question if one is completely stumped, and return to the question when all other questions have been attempted.
If panic should start setting in, the relaxation techniques discussed above will be helpful. First, stop all negative self-talk with reminders such as:
- “It’s OK to not get these questions right.”
- “I’ll focus on answering the other questions well.”
- “I can still do well in the exam even if I don’t answer this question.”
- “I’ve done my part to prepare for this exam and I’m doing my best.”
Next, breathe deeply and slowly, using the “4-7-8” breathing technique, until one feels ready to resume working on the paper. At the same time, one can also try small movements, such as rolling the shoulders or stretching one’s arms and legs, to reduce tension.
“People around me are panicking!”
It’s easy to pick up on someone else’s anxiety, and begin to feel worried too. Talk to your children about this phenomenon, and what to do about it.
Solution: On the day of the exam, your child may walk into the waiting area and find others frantically reading their notes or quizzing one another. Remind your children that the important work has been done, and it’s perfectly fine to read a storybook while waiting for the exam to begin. If being around a certain classmate stresses them out, they should move away and find their own quiet corner to relax.
You can also talk to your children about some common exam scenarios that can create anxiety. For instance, a classmate may ask for extra sheets of paper, which may cause your children to feel as if their essay isn’t comprehensive enough. Or someone may appear to have finished their paper well ahead of time, while your children are only halfway through. Conversely, someone may be tense, but it doesn’t mean that everyone needs to feel the same way. Remind your children to focus on running their own race. The exam experience is different for everyone — don’t let others become a distraction.