Exam Stress in Children: Warning Signs and Tips to Manage

by Meiling Wong
2 years ago

2 girl children studying exam stress

Sitting for exams are part and parcel of every student’s academic journey. However, this examination process can cause exam stress in children and affect their performance. 

Exam stress does not just affect our children. It is the cause for much angst and sleepless nights for many parents too. 

In this post, we will look at what causes exam stress and the different ways parents can help their children to beat it.

What Causes Exam Stress?

Exam stress is a feeling of pressure that students experience during revision period before their exams, when they are sitting for the exams and even post-exam when they stress about the results. 

According to a global study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Singapore students have significantly higher stress levels (86%) compared to students in other countries (66%). These high stress levels are a result of competitive pressure from schools, peers and parents. 

The constant pursuit for the perfect score and the high regard parents have for good grades have resulted in a pressure-cooker education system that cause major exam stress in our children. Long school days, many hours of homework, plus multiple tuition sessions can severely impact the mental well-being of our children.

According to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), more children today are seeking help to beat exam stress. Common conditions seen by counsellors include stress, anxiety and depressive disorders. According to Dr. Lim Choon Guan, senior consultant and deputy chief of IMH’s department of developmental psychiatry, school-related stress could be academic-based (homework, examinations, projects) or relationship-linked (issues with school authorities, friendship and bullying). 

The rising numbers of young suicides in Singapore continue to be a major concern for social workers, educators and parents. This concern is leading the charge for an urgent shift in mindset to prevent exam stress in children. 

“Suicide remains the leading cause of death for those aged 10 to 29,” says Ms Wong Lai Chun, senior assistant director at Samaritans of Singapore (SOS). She adds that “when teens have yet to develop adequate coping mechanisms and there is a lack of awareness of the available resources, the combination of different stressors may lead youths to feel overwhelmed and unable to cope. 

Triggers of Stress in Children 

What triggers our kids to feel stressed? 

Studies have shown that students feel anxious when they:

  • Worry they might fail
  • Don’t feel prepared to sit for the test/exam
  • Did not study enough
  • Feel pressure from family to get good marks 
  • Are competitive and need to get certain results; or 
  • Experience external issues like family discord, parental divorce or bullying in school

Symptoms of Stress To Look Out For

Stress manifests itself in several ways. It is time to dial back on academic pressure if you see your child exhibiting any of the following symptoms:

  • Feeling moody, in low spirits, confused
  • Having trouble making decisions
  • Feeling overwhelmed with school assignments
  • Trouble sleeping or getting out of bed at odd hours of night
  • Tense muscles or headaches
  • Having an upset stomach or feeling sick with no apparent cause
  • Fidgeting, nail biting or teeth grinding
  • Breakout in acne (facial or body)

How to Beat Exam Stress

Aside from carefully monitoring your children for exam stress-related symptoms, parents can also help their children beat exam stress with these practical tips: 

1. Establish good study habits

Teach your child how to revise effectively and show them how to organise a study schedule that allows for sufficient revision time before the exam period. 

2. Preparations and Practice

Focus on understanding the concepts rather than memorisation. Practice is key in areas such as mathematics, comprehension or composition writing etc.  Encourage them to practice taking the exam papers with useful techniques such as underlining key words and instructions and reading the questions carefully to avoid careless mistakes.

3. Learn relaxation techniques

Some kids hold their breath in when they feel anxious. Breathing in and out three times provides them with oxygen that will help calm their nerves and send oxygen to them brain, which allows them to perform during the exam.

4. Get a good night’s sleep

Going to bed at a regular time prior to the exam period allows your body to be adjusted to a bedtime routine that helps you get the rest you need the night before your exam. The natural body clock may help reduce the anxiety caused by exam stress.

5. Get rid of distractions

Put away any digital gadgets like the television, mobile phones, iPads, or computers that will cause a distraction to your child’s study or revision time. Use them as reward instead for after revision.

6. Reassure Your Child of Your Love Regardless of Grades

Have a discussion with your child on the purpose of exams – to test knowledge and understanding. Encourage your child and bolster his/her confidence in your love no matter the outcome of the exam.

On exam day, prepare a light breakfast for your child that will give him/her energy and concentration. Remind your child to go to the toilet before the exam starts and do the breathing exercises when they sit down for the exam.

We hope that the above practical tips will help you and your child beat exam stress.