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Understanding and using stress to fuel performance.

Exams loom for children everywhere in the form of end-of-year assessments, 13+, GCSEs, A-Levels, Pre-Us, IBs or AP exams and, inevitably, pre-exam stress is widespread. Exams play a role in what happens next in our child’s life and children want to do well, even if they sometimes pretend they don’t care.

But ask any student how their revision is going, and a typical response is “I’m so stressed”. As parents ourselves, we know it’s an emotional and challenging time for us too!

Neither children nor parents have much, if any, control over the actual exams, and parents often don’t feel they have much control over their child’s revision. But we have a powerful influence because we can help our children recognise and use their natural exam nerves to boost their performance, both in the run-up to the exam(s) and on the day itself, just as professional athletes and performers do. We can help them turn their nerves and worries from a limiting factor into a fuel source.

First, let’s take a more nuanced view of ‘stress’ and make sure our children understand the difference between distress and eustress.

Understanding and using stress to fuel performance

A life without any stress, or any response to stress, may sound ideal but it doesn’t work because we wouldn’t achieve anything or survive long! And it also doesn’t work when our stress-response gets over-active and becomes out of proportion to the challenge or threat because that puts us into distress.

Under distress, our fears overwhelm our thinking and drive our behaviour, leaving us significantly less able to deal with the challenge or threat.

But when we keep our stress-response proportional to the actual stress, rather than any perceived stress, we experience eustress and that’s a good thing! Eustress doesn’t feel comfortable but it’s full of potential …

So, if you’ve not done any revision, and missed some lessons, and never caught up, and you’ve avoided all the practice tests, then you will be scared about being able to answer the questions and perform well, and distress is an entirely reasonable and appropriate response.

If you’ve worked hard over the year, done some decent preparation, and have some experience of stepping out of your comfort zone, then you will still be nervous about what questions will be revealed as the exam starts, but this is eustress. Being calm wouldn’t be appropriate!

We may feel butterflies in the stomach, or have flushed cheeks, cold hands, or shaky legs. We may have excess energy or difficulties sleeping. This is what happens when we’re about to do something tricky, that we’ve not done before, and that matters to us.

In addition to our previous blog on dealing with pre-exam anxieties, here are some other suggestions:

Keep an eye out …

You know your child, so watch for any particular signs that they’re getting nervous and possibly tipping from eustress to distress. Maybe they’re more irritable or more impatient or more demanding .... Maybe their appetite has changed, or they’re more tired than usual … Maybe they’ve lost their sense of humour and seem to be more gloomy about everything … Maybe they seem locked in a cycle of negative predictions and worst-case scenarios … It might be an off-day, particularly if they’re teenagers, but it may also be a clue that they’re moving from eustress to distress.

Check in ….

If we ask “what’s wrong?” or “are you OK?” we don’t get a very helpful response!

Instead, we need to say something like “you seem tired to me, and I wondered if you’re having trouble falling asleep because you’re finding it hard to switch off?” or “you sounded impatient with your sister earlier, so perhaps you need a bit of break or a change of scene?”. This is what we call being an emotion coach. We’re naming how our child may be feeling which helps them feel seen, heard, understood and supported. It means they’re more likely to share with you what’s going on, and that’s the first step to stay in, and manage, eustress rather than falling into distress.

Help them manage their nerves positively

Knowing the difference between distress and eustress means we can start to accept our nerves as something helpful, and work with them, rather than interpret them as a warning sign that confirms we can’t cope which leads us to panic.

Here are our some of our most well-used strategies:

Catch, Challenge + Change

Our emotions are tightly connected to our thoughts. If we’re thinking ‘these exams are going to be hard, I’ve not done enough work, this is a disaster, people will be angry or disappointed with me, I’m never going to pass, it’s all going to go wrong’ this triggers waves of negative emotions which push us towards distress.

It helps children when they understand the link between thoughts and feelings and behaviour and are able to uncover and articulate their thoughts. Then, without judgement or blame, we can help them assess whether the thoughts are accurate and fair. Finally, they can refine the thought to be more realistic, productive and helpful.

For example, if your child is thinking “I’m going to fail” we ‘catch’ that thought and write it down. Then we examine the thought closely to ‘challenge’ whether it is accurate, fair or reasonable.

Failing an exam is, sadly, always a possibility but how likely is it, for this exam, based on everything else? Is there any real evidence that failure is something that needs to be worried about? Talk with your child about what they have achieved in the past, their progress in any practice or mock test marks, their efforts recently and their revision plans for however many days until the exam. You could talk about what else they could do, or if there is anything they might need from you, to feel more secure and confident.

Then we change the thought of “I’m going to fail” to be “this exam is important and I’ve been working hard to prepare and I’ve made good progress, and it’s natural to be nervous. I know what else I need to do before the exam and I also know how I can help myself think clearly on the day. This is going to give me the best chance possible.”

Imagine the exam

Sports psychologists work with professional athletes to ‘imagine’ the experience of the race ahead of time. It’s more than just visualizing the race - it’s about using all the senses to prepare. I used to do this with my child before a big exam. We’d lie on the living room floor, and I’d ask her a series of questions. Things like:

  • What are you having for breakfast before the exam?
  • What are wearing on the day?
  • How are you feeling in the car as we drive to school?
  • What does the classroom look like? How many desks are there? How are they arranged?
  • How many pencils/pens/erasers do you have?
  • Where is the clock?
  • What does the room smell like?
  • What does the room sound like?
  • How are you feeling as the teacher gives you the go-ahead to start?
  • How are you feeling when you see a challenging question?
  • What will you do when you’re not sure how to answer the question?
  • What will you do when the exam is over?
  • She didn’t need to answer the questions out loud. It was a silent exercise for her to close her eyes and experience the test situation prior to the day. She gave herself the chance to mentally prepare for the exam and anticipate potential challenges ahead of time.

    And my daughter also used to ‘airdrop’ her exam, and other, worries to me as she was about to set off on exam day. She could share her worries with me, and then park them with me to hold for the day, while she went off to do her best. When she came home, if she wanted to, she could pick them back up from me. We’re still doing it. More often than not, we don’t ask to have our worries back!

    Protect the fundamentals – rest, food, downtime and tasks

    It’s so easy to lose the basics when there’s a lot going on and nerves are running high. Maintaining a healthy diet (including family meals!) and a decent amount of quality sleep is imperative during exam season. We’re sure you know all about healthy diets, so stick with the oatmeal, eggs, oily fish, avocado, nuts, seeds and lots of water, and avoid falling to sugar-laden comfort snacks that can actually raise our stress levels.

    During exam season, it’s tempting to let our children drop any household jobs or limit their downtime in order to maximise time for studying. But in order for their brains to process and make sense of all the incoming information, they need breaks to relax and enjoy something utterly unrelated to exams. They also benefit from having responsibilities which give them a sense of normality and purpose, as well as a feeling accomplishment and agency.

    That’s not to say you can’t offer to help them out with packing their bag or feeding the rabbit if you sense they’d appreciate a hand. It’s just that normal routines keep us feeling more, well, normal and in control.

    On the sleep front, the key night for a really good sleep is the night before the night before the exam! Then the final day is (relatively) calm, and the focus on the night before is to rest, relax and distract, rather than cram and panic.

    Show them the way

    Children pick up on our stress levels, often without either of us realising it. If we’re falling into distress, but pretending it’s all fine, our children quickly pick up the message that they should do all they can to ‘keep calm and carry on’. But covering up and forging ahead is not the healthy way to manage stress!

    In ‘Under Pressure’, Lisa Damour writes “Much of what our children learn about how to manage stress comes from observing how we manage it as parents … When we accept that stress often leads to growth — and help our [children] do the same — we create a self-fulfilling prophecy for ourselves and our [children].”

    So don’t bottle up your own worries, although obviously it’s not appropriate to spill it all out! Instead, be open about feeling stressed yourself because this shows our children we’re not scared of feeling worried or nervous, so they don’t need to be either. We want them to learn that a reasonable level of stress is perfectly safe and normal. And, crucially, articulate what you’re going to do to help yourself feel better.

    So we might say “goodness, I can feel the tension in my shoulders today, it’s been a busy week with way too much going on, and quite a few things going wrong! I need to park my worries to one side for a few minutes and book myself a yoga class, then I know I will be able to think more clearly about next week.”

    Exam season is not the easiest of times to be a child or their parent. We hope these ideas help you help your child understand and manage their nerves and worries about whatever exam they’re taking and keep everyone in a nice bit of eustress so they can hold on to a sense of confidence and clarity and focus.

    It will all be over soon enough. Although the individual exams last just a few hours, well, a bit longer for some, the lessons learned about approaching, managing and surviving, even thriving through, challenges will work in all sorts of situations in the future.