Academic and exam stress

Wanting to do well in school work is a generally positive attribute and some degree of concern about school tests is normal. But recent teacher surveys and data from helplines (such as The Key and Childline) point to increases in exam stress, worry and anxiety – even for primary school children.

Children who find schoolwork a struggle, or those with special education needs or mental health difficulties, may be more likely to experience academic anxiety, but so can high achievers, particularly children who are overly perfectionist or whose parents have very high ambitions for them.

Pupils with high levels of academic anxiety tend to perform more poorly in their exams, so it is important for schools to help them prepare properly, and to encourage pupils to develop the coping skills that underpin resilience so they can reduce the negative effects of anxiety.

Fear of failure and the pressure to do well can affect children’s ability to sleep, which in turn can undermine their mental health as well as lead to anxiety attacks and depression

What is stress?

Stress is a normal part of life. The Harvard Center for the Developing Child identifies three main types of stress: positive, tolerable and toxic.

  • Positive stress: some degree of stress can be positive for children helping them learn coping skills and develop resilience.
  • Tolerable stress: temporary stress can be tolerated particularly if children have developed resilience and are cushioned by strong adult relationships.
  • Toxic stress: involves the prolonged activation of stress responses without the benefit of being protected by strong adult relationships.

Spotting the signs

Signs of academic stress can sometimes be difficult to spot, especially in younger children who may not recognise, or be able to articulate what they are feeling.

Children who are affected by anxiety and stress about tests and school work may:

  • Complain of physical health problems (e.g. stomach aches, headaches etc.).
  • Not be sleeping or eating properly.
  • Have mood changes, such as being tearful, angry, withdrawn.
  • Be reluctant to attend school or talk about tests and exams.
  • Spend too much time on their work or alternatively avoid schoolwork.
  • Be overly self-critical of themselves and of any mistakes they make.
  • Become obsessive in the way they work – unwilling or unable to break off.

Protective factors: what schools can do

Children can pick up on their teachers’ and parents’ attitudes about the importance of SATs and other tests.

  • Make sure the whole-school environment is respectful, safe and nurturing.
  • Ensure that your school has regular PSHE lessons which follow a robust PSHE curriculum. PSHE is a vital opportunity to develop important skills such as resilience, helping to promote children’s mental health and wellbeing and enabling them to face challenges with confidence. See our whole-school programmes, targeted small group work, and PSHE resources.
  • Positive relationships in the classroom/school built on kindness, trust, safety and security promote pupil wellbeing and provide the protective benefit of a strong, healthy relationship with an adult.
  • Be alert to signs of stress among pupils and follow up to ask if they are alright.
  • School staff should ensure they are managing their own stress levels and looking after their own mental health


Top tips


Boost self-esteem

It can make a huge difference! If a pupil is struggling, encourage them to think about all the things they are good at, even if these are not school related. 


Break it down

Support pupils to break down their workload into manageable chunks. Trying to do too much at one time can feel overwhelming.


Have 'brain breaks'

A 1-3 minute ‘brain break’ from academic work every half an hour can help pupils learn more efficiently and maintaining focus. Breaks could involve short discussion, physical movement or activities which clear the mind, such as meditation.


Stay hydrated

Allow water to be drunk by children in the classroom – emerging studies suggest that even mild de-hydration can affect working memory and mental agility.


Provide perspective

Remind children that although exam results are important, they must be kept in perspective. Even if tests go badly, life will go on.


Peer support

Stress can make pupils feel very isolated, but other classmates may feel exactly the same. Encourage pupils to support each other.


Set an example

Encourage pupils to think about things they enjoy and how they relax. Staff could share their own tips for managing stress; maybe listening to music or going for a run, or by writing a plan to manage their own work. This sets a great example that pupils can learn from.


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