Learners and parents: How to beat end-of-year exam stress

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused major upheaval to daily life. Education has been at the heart of the disruption – learners in grade one to matric had to transition to new routines and styles of learning literally overnight, when the hard lockdown began in March 2020.

A year and a half later, many learners are still coming to terms with the challenges of being disconnected from daily routines, teachers, peers and support systems, which makes preparing for the end-of-year exams that much more daunting.

The expectation to do well in exams while studying for them even under normal circumstances can be immense. The challenges of the lockdown, along with day-to-day disruptions such as load-shedding and a lack of digital resources, have added unprecedented levels of pressure on learners to not only pass their exams, but to do so with flying colours.

While it is natural for learners to experience some form of anxiety or stress around exam time – especially matric finals – the thought of being weighed down by these challenges can impact the mental health of learners. It can affect their physical health and general wellbeing too. Many parents often fail to take these added pressures into consideration, but they play a critical role by providing support at home.

It can be easy for learners to become overwhelmed by the exam itself, even if they have prepared well for their exams. Family expectations can also create negativity or even disillusionment, so, as parents and guardians, do not add unnecessary pressure by criticising them or setting high expectations. Listen to your child – give them the support they need and be reassuring and positive so that they can do their best.

Learners are more likely to achieve their goals if they feel relaxed, confident, and less stressed. While it may be difficult to focus on their work amid the chaos, it should be known that they are not the only ones going through what they are experiencing. Learners should find positive outlets and learn how to control their emotions, so that they can focus on the study material to be successful.

It can be equally distressing for parents to see their teenagers go through exam-related stress. Someone who experiences feelings of anxiousness or stress can be difficult to deal with at home and can lead to tension among family members, particularly with those working remotely from home.

What should you do if your child is showing signs of stress?

If stress is causing significant or ongoing difficulties, or if there are signs of stress-related illnesses, parents of learners should speak to a suitably qualified health professional, such as their school counsellor or GP. If a learner experiences a panic attack or severe anxiety symptoms, such as difficulty breathing or chest pains, parents should contact the South African Depression and Anxiety Group on 0800 567 567.

Eight tips for learners to manage exam stress: 

  1. Start your exam preparation well in advance
  2. Go with the study method that suits you best
  3. Choose the time of day when you are most focused for intensive studying
  4. Take breaks in between study sessions
  5. Exercise frequently
  6. Get enough sleep, especially the night before an exam
  7. Know times, venues, procedures and what you can take into the exam venue
  8. Arrive well before the start of the exam

Five ways parents can support their child during exams:

1. Prioritise mental well-being

Identify stress triggers that can cause fear and anxiety in your child. Help them deal with negativity by finding ways of coping with these feelings, so that they can regain focus. Help your teenager set up a dedicated study space to give them a sense of control and ensure that your home is a calm, productive, and supportive space.

2. Encourage a regular sleep cycle

A disrupted sleep pattern can send stress levels through the roof, especially if that big exam is looming. Remind your teenager about the importance of getting enough uninterrupted sleep. Plan meals around their schedule and try to eat together as a family, so that disruptions are kept to a minimum.

3. Promote a healthy lifestyle

Studying for exams requires time and effort, but it should not be to the detriment of your child’s health. Encourage them to step away from their books occasionally, so that they can clear their head. Ensure they get enough physical exercise, nutritional meals, quality sleep and reduce screen time as much as possible.

4. Set realistic expectations

As a parent, you want your child to do well, but it is also important that your expectations, as well as your child’s own expectations, are realistic and achievable. Discuss their goals with them and help map out their study plan, so that they can get a sense of direction and the desired expectations.

5. Be a shining light

Keep cool, stay calm and be positive – good parenting and model behaviour will enable you to show that you understand and care. It is important to take care of your own wellbeing too, as being in a healthy state of mind will go a long way in managing your child’s wellbeing and supporting them to effectively deal with challenges.

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Nomalungelo Ntlokwana
Nomalungelo Ntlokwana is the acting director of the Emthonjeni-Fountain of Student Wellness at Nelson Mandela University. She holds a BA Ed teaching profession degree and MA in counselling psychology, and is registered as a counselling psychologist with the Health Professions Council of South Africa.

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