Exams & Curriculum Supporting teens through exam stress

Supporting Teenagers through Exams and Educational Stress

Adults often claim that their school years were the best time of their life. It is important to understand, however, that this is a retrospective analysis of their time in school, and that it does not necessarily reflect how many teenagers, caught up in the educational process, experience their time there. Of course, some teenagers enjoy school, but many do not; and an extraordinarily high number of teenagers, including those who enjoy it, find their time in school highly stressful. A wide variety of factors can contribute to the experience of stress, including workload, homework, peer pressure, difficult relationships with other students or teachers, academic difficulties, fear of being in a situation of having to speak out or present in front of others, and of course, exams!

At this time of year in the northern hemisphere, many teenagers are becoming aware that the exam season is moving inexorably closer. For some this will mean an assessment of progress made during the current school year; for others it will mean a series of exams that could play a large role in determining their future: which university they will be able to attend, if any, and ultimately the career upon which they might embark.


The exam system has its detractors, who argue that it is possible to learn how to be good at exams, without necessarily being good at anything else; or who see exams as a poor basis for taking decisions that may have a long-term effect on a person’s future. However, universities and employers seem generally to be agreed that, whilst the exam system may not be perfect, it remains the best tool we currently have for assessing academic potential. Many use other additional factors or measures alongside exam performance, but even so, exam results still carry enormous weight.

Of course, there are some students who look forward to exams, knowing they are likely to perform better than they do ordinarily. For others, however, exams begin to loom on the horizon like some kind of mythical beast that needs to be fought and conquered. It is not just the importance of the outcome that contributes to the stress surrounding the exam period. Fear of failure, exaggerated parental expectations, realization that time during a course of study has not been used wisely, knowing that their hopes for the future might be dashed by the outcome – all these factors, and more, can combine to make the exam season a time of extraordinary stress and anxiety.


Stress is not something that can be avoided altogether and, indeed, a certain level of stress can be a good thing[1] and a helpful spur to getting things done. However, stress is an experience that needs to be managed, rather than being allowed to become a controlling force in life. If stress becomes the norm, rather than an occasional experience, or if a person’s level of stress always seems to be on the rise, then there are grounds for concern. So what can parents do to support teenagers through times of educational stress and through the dreaded exam season?

1. Guide them through managing the stress.

Sometimes parents feel the desire to protect their teenagers from experiencing all forms of stress. However, the attempt to create a world devoid of stress is doomed ultimately to fail since such a world is unreal. Much better, in my view, is to seek to help teenagers to learn to manage their stress. This could involve learning how to organise their workload so that, with some forward planning, the peaks and troughs are largely evened out. It could also involve the development and maintenance of a healthy work-life balance, so that there is adequate time for work, socialising, exercise, rest, sleep and all other aspects of life. It might also incorporate learning how to use stress to inspire progress and how to function well in those times when, even with the best planning, events still conspire to place us in stressful situations. All these skills are learned over time, no doubt with some mistakes on the way, but they are the kind of skills that will enable teenagers and young adults to make progress whilst also enjoying life in our stressful world.

2. Give practical help.

This is where many parents choose to start when it comes to the exam season. I have lost count of the number of parents who have said to me over the years something along the lines of, “I decided the most valuable thing I could do was feed them!” Practical measures that enable the student to focus on revision and preparation for exams represent one way that parents can show support. The nature of the support will depend on the teenager and the family. Other approaches I have encountered include: suspending certain household chores until the exams are over, funding one night out a week during the exam season to ensure the student takes some time off from revision, and making adjustments to the pattern of life in the household to try to minimize disruption for the student.

3. Offer various forms of encouragement.

Both in the exam season and at other times, parents will want to encourage their teenagers to keep going in the face of pressure and when they feel like giving up. But there are other forms of encouragement that may be required too. Students work best when their revision programme is balanced. In the run-up to exams, encourage your teenager to draft a revision plan. It does not need to account for every minute over a three-month period, but it does need to include all the subjects! Also, encourage them to include time off, exercise and sleep so that a balance is maintained, as that will enable them to work more effectively. Ultimately, encourage them to accept that your love for them is not determined by the level of their exam performance, and if the results turn out to be disappointing, reinforce that message when they find out. In the meantime, encourage them to work hard through the time that remains to them before the exams and to do their best.

4. Ensure they have access to advice about revision.

Many schools offer advice and some form of programme to help prepare students for revision and exams, but there is often much more that could be done in this respect. Such a programme will hopefully explore a variety of approaches to revision that will appeal to a range of learning styles. Also, they will hopefully be aimed to help students develop the skills they need to make revision plans and to know how to use those plans helpfully. It is also helpful for teenagers to understand the value of sleep, of a healthy work-life balance, and of good examination technique, so all these might also helpfully be included in a programme of preparation. If your teenager’s school tends to assume that students know how to revise rather than addressing the topic directly, I suggest that parents request a thorough preparation course to help improve both the performance of individuals and of the school’s students overall.

5. Understand what active revision means.

Over the years I have had numerous conversations with teenagers about their preparation for exams. Many of them have told me that their teachers have stressed the need for active revision, but when I have followed up with a question about what that means, a surprisingly large proportion of them seemed not to know. Good advice is soon wasted if it contains educational jargon that students do not understand! The term active revision is trying to get the message across that there is far more to a good revision programme than the student just reading through their notes, which a surprisingly large number seem to think is all that is required! That may be part of it, but there should also be working through examples from scratch, checking notes against textbooks, asking teachers or peers for clarification where needed, trying out past exam questions. I have seen a number of instances where students have formed their own revision groups for certain subjects, where they teach, help and support each other through the exam season.

6. Consider gender differences.

It is generally accepted that girls mature earlier than boys, which can give them an edge in exam situations where candidates are pretty much the same age. Self-doubt can affect many teenagers, often girls especially. Lack of organization can be an affliction that is more common in boys due to their comparative immaturity. Whilst students do not always follow their gender stereotypes, there is nevertheless sufficient truth within a stereotype to give parents and teachers an understanding of things for which they need to be looking. Whatever the cause, such characteristics can be a disadvantage during the pressured exam season and so bring additional stress. But they are also issues that can be addressed and managed with help.

7. Emphasise the importance of learning for life.

Whether your teenager enjoys exams or hates them, the discipline of preparing for exams and of working through them is not just about determining their grade. There remain many professions, such as medicine and law, where progress depends on sitting exams, even after a considerable number of years out of school. Learning whilst still at school how to cope with the pressures and to work within the constraints of an exam system helps prepare students for such future academic challenges. Many of the skills associated with taking exams are also transferrable to other areas of life. Time-management within a pressurised environment, the accurate and concise verbal expression of ideas, preparing thoroughly for important occasions to get the most out of them, keeping calm under pressure – all these, and other skills apply not only to success in exams, but are important life skills that will equip your teenager well for whatever area of work lies ahead of them.

8. Place responsibility with the student.

Ultimate responsibility for what your teenager gains from their education, and for the level of their exam results, rests with them. Teachers, tutors, peers and parents can all offer support, expertise and help as appropriate, but that will achieve little if the student does not put in the work. None of the above, nor exam boards, are there to act as scapegoats if the results do not turn out to your teenager’s liking. It is important that your teenager understands that this is what reality looks like when it comes to exams. If your teenager is among the small minority of students who, despite being made aware of their responsibility, persist in doing next to no work, there is little a parent can do other than reinforce the message about responsibility.

Difficult though it may be for parents to watch, some teenagers only learn the hard way. If the worst happens and the results are disappointing, I can only say that I have worked with a number of parents over the years whose teenagers have not been admitted into their chosen university at the first attempt, or who have needed to take a year out and re-sit a number of exams. Often the teenager has succeeded the second time around, or they have decided on a different direction for their future, and both the teenager and the parents have found eventually that the initial poor results were not the end of the world, even if it felt like it at the time. For a significant proportion of those who found themselves in that position, the experience turned out eventually to be a valuable learning experience.

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-wide-wide-world-psychology/201601/why-stress-is-both-good-and-bad

About the Author: Dr Steve Sims is author of the blog “Regarding Teenagers” and Director of the Basel Learning Hub in Switzerland. https://regardingteenagers.com/

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