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Under pressure: helping your kids with exam stress


Oliver Scott is Headteacher at St Joseph’s School in Launceston. He has a lovely manner with the kids, very inclusive and caring, and yet he also runs a school with great results. We’d briefly talked about pressures facing children today when I visited for the first Muddy school review. With two teens of my own taking exams right now, I’ve nobbled Ollie again for his views of how teachers, parents and kids themselves can work together to reduce stress and worries of exams.

What roles does school have in managing students exam pressure?

The school has a very important part to play when managing, and reducing, examination pressure and stress for those in their care. Those at school will have much greater experience of the process of examination success, and coping with the stresses and strains these can place on young people, and also on the situation at home. It is often a time when the difficulties and pressures the young person is under show themselves more at home that at school, and being able to help parents, as well as pupils, through this can be an important part of the process.

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As with much in any school, communication is so important. We try and ensure parents feel they can come in and speak with staff about concerns they may have, and it is part of our Year 10 induction, and an element of PSHEE and careers education that they are aware of how to cope with stresses and strains that the exam season can bring. One unforeseen side of St Joseph’s reputation for academic excellence and our tradition of very strong GCSE results is that pupils can feel under pressure because of past cohorts, although we are very aware that every year group is, by definition, different to any that have gone before.


What does a caring school look like?

A ‘caring’ school is one where emotional wellbeing is built into the school’s DNA, where there is a sense of support for pupils in class and outside of the more formal setting of the classroom. The pastoral policies support this, and the school’s ethos should make explicit the need to put pupil welfare at the centre of all they do. Safeguarding needs to be clear, and all staff need to be engaged in the process of moving the school, and the pupils, forward in terms of their personal development and their burgeoning, and delicate, sense of self. Without this then the academic success means little.

An atmosphere of mutual respect between pupils and staff is not something that can be easily put on for a prospective parent. Parents must not be afraid to ask teachers and senior staff anything they feel they need an answer too regarding the wider life of the school when considering where to educate their children.


How can children help themselves?

Stress levels will get high whenever there are a group of Year 11 pupils together, and the same holds true for those facing school, rather than national, exams. Learning is an active process, and revision, like lessons in school, should be individualised and engaging, and learners need to be brought to the point that they know what works best for them. This is very rarely simply sitting and re-reading notes: minds wander, the temptation to reach for the smartphone, tablet or other distraction in an age of instant gratification can be huge. My advice would be:

Get your notes / files / books in order. Now. You cannot hope to revise without doing so.

Be ACTIVE in revision: just like in the classroom, this is not done through osmosis. Being in the presence of knowledge is not the same as working to ensure something is learnt.

Begin with a lot and make it smaller. This can be done in a number of ways. The most effective two I know are:

  • Start by getting all your topic notes to fit onto a single piece of A4. Then compress these onto a piece of A5. Do this by cutting things back, not just by writing smaller. Then compress this even further to a postcard. Use initials, symbols, even silly pictures to help you remember.
  • Try to get a whole topic or subject into a mind map. Then make that smaller: reduce to initials, letter, images, acronyms. Then remembering what these are will help you put it all clear in your mind. This can be on paper, or using an app such as Poplet.

Little and often:
Go back to things and don’t try to do too much in one go. You need to be targeted in your revision, and make the very best of the time you have.

Think smart: use past papers, make sure you know the format of what you are going to be faced with, and how you can go about picking up marks. Knowing this gives you a much better chance of success. A QR code for the exam board specification, and handing in past papers for comment and evaluation through apps such as Showbie can help here.


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Don’t worry about other people’s revision techniques – what they are doing may be great, but what you are doing should work for YOU and so does not have to be the same as other people’s revision.

Ask for help when you need it. If you find a gap, a topic you are totally confused by, an area that no longer makes sense ASK SOMEONE. This can be a friend, or a teacher. WRITE DOWN EXACTLY WHAT YOU ARE UNSURE ABOUT SO YOU REMEMBER – AND ASK! Social media can be great here – collaborative learning is useful, and explain, or teaching, to others is brilliant revision for you. Padlet can be great for sharing ideas, for example.


What can parents do?

Try and establish the scale of what is going to come up, and help set realistic expectations. Know, and listen to your child. Easier said than done with some teenagers who place emotional, and sometimes physical (bedroom doors) barriers in place, but do keep working on this – they need your support.

Advise, encourage, be available. Try not to loiter, lurk or threaten! Offer to help with testing, but don’t leap to judge if they don’t get it all right as they won’t ask again.

Try and avoid using what is an emotional and difficult revision time as an opportunity to reminisce about the O Level system, how Maths was taught when you were at school or your favourite/least favourite teachers. Biscuits and cups of tea may well be much better received.

Make sure they do take breaks – hours of revision with no respite will not often lead to retained information. 45 minutes is about the most that would make sense to attempt at a time, with a 10 minute break following this.

What if they’re not bothering?


If your child does too little: speak to them, and their teachers. There may be a reason, but it may seem like such a mammoth task that it can’t be started. Try breaking it down into smaller sections – not Biology but photosynthesis, not the whole novel but one character, or theme. If the problem is one of distraction, turning off the Wi-Fi or removing distractions can work – but if they have a great deal of information Cloud hosted, or rely on something like Own Cloud to access their school’s intranet – as we do here via the 1:1 iPad programme we have – this may cause even greater difficulties!

What about the child that obsesses?

The obsessive child may not need stopping. The concern would be if their revision becomes so all-consuming they are working to the detriment of other elements of their lives, or their personal hygiene!…Some pupils simply cannot countenance the idea of being underprepared. However, this will need the parent to make the judgement, and school can often be a place to ask for help here too. We encourage pupils to ensure they are still active, and taking part in things such as PE lessons, to make sure that revision does not take over all aspects of a child’s life.


Parents need to remember that this is not about them, this is about their child. Be assured you have done all you can to support your children, but now need to let them show what they can do. I have had children whose parents have used the fact of school fees, and family sacrifice to put a child through school, as a method to put additional pressure on children. It is important to remember that it is extremely unlikely this was a child’s request, and placing additional pressure on a stressed child is often counter-productive.

Parents who may not have succeeded academically, but who have made great successes of themselves in the wider world, are often those who place the highest value on education because of their own perceived ‘failures’ in this one, formative, area of their lives.  This is very confusing for a child who sees a parent able to finance school fees when having few formal qualifications and yet insisting that their son or daughter gains more than them, despite their subsequent success. The best thing is to remember that your child is an individual, who will make their own mistakes, and have their own, considerable, achievements. By providing the opportunities you have done so much for your child already. Now try to continue that support, provide that comfort and keep a close eye on monitoring their health and work, even when a slammed door or angry reply can make it seem you are cast as public enemy in the eyes of a child who so recently was just starting out.

Exams are never easy, but by working together with parents and pupils, and communicating clearly, schools can try and make the process as smooth, and as beneficial to all concerned, as possible.

St Joseph’s School, St Stephen’s Hill, Launceston PL15 8HN. St Joseph’s are having an open day – Friday 23 June 10-12am.

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