Academic and exam stress

Exam stress describes the emotional, physiological, and behavioural responses caused by an imminent test or exam.

It can be related to a negative previous experience of exams, poor preparation, worry about failure, or pressure to perform.

For children and young people who are generally anxious, the experience of taking exams can be very threatening and could lead to unmanageable increases in anxiety levels.

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

Academic anxiety is likely to increase as children get older, although primary school teachers have reported anxiety in their pupils too. In secondary education, pressure around school exams (like GCSEs, National 1-5s, Highers, A-Levels, or Advanced Highers), vocational qualifications (like BTECs or SVQs) and progression to higher education may cause anxiety in some pupils.

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 and young people, helping them learn coping skills and develop resilience.
  • Tolerable stress: temporary stress can be tolerated particularly if children and young people 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.

Identifying the signs

Signs of academic stress can sometimes be difficult to identify. Children and young people may not want to talk about stress they are experiencing.

Children and young people 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  • Have mood changes, such as being tearful, angry or withdrawn.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.

What schools and further education settings can do

If you are at all concerned about a child or young person, you should always speak to your designated safeguarding lead as a matter of priority. They will be able to advise on suitable next steps, and speaking to them about any concerns should always be the first action you take, ahead of any of the suggestions on this page.

  • Support exam preparation by holding revision classes and helping pupils to create a study schedule to monitor progress.
  • Encourage pupils to form small study groups or partners to embed learning.
  • Allow pupils to familiarise themselves with the exam conditions including the room, the invigilator role, the rules and the timings.
  • Ensure that your school has regular health and wellbeing lessons which follow a robust curriculum. Health and wellbeing education is a vital opportunity to develop important skills such as resilience, helping to promote children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing and enabling them to face challenges with confidence. 
  • Be alert to signs of stress among pupils and follow up to ask if they are alright.
  • Encourage pupils to take care of themselves by eating the right kind of foods, drinking water and getting enough sleep.
  • School/college staff should ensure they are managing their own stress levels and looking after their own mental health

Top tips

Provide reassurance

Remind pupils of past successes and give them the opportunity to say how they are feeling.

Support exam preparation

Hold revision classes, create study schedules for pupils and encourage them to revise in pairs or groups.

Share relaxation techniques

Controlled breathing and mindfulness techniques can help calm anxieties around exams.

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