ACP offers advice to young people, parents and teachers on how to manage exam stress


This is a difficult time of year for many families, not only for those with young people taking exams. Teachers too, experience the stress and tension of getting students to achieve top grades and avoiding low or “fail” grades. They also see and are affected by the effects of exam stress on children

Statistics released by ChildLine recently, show a rise in the number of school children worried about exam stress. Kevin Courtney, Deputy General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, the largest teachers’ union, said:

“Teachers see very clearly the effect of stress on students and are reporting exam stress amongst school children from primary school upwards. Many relate it to the joyless exam factory approach this Government has towards education and the high-stakes nature of testing.

Children and young people face so many pressures from social media and day-to-day life. Government education policy should not be adding to this. We have the most tested children in Europe and also some of the unhappiest in the world. We need to take a serious look at the rigid way in which Government policy dictates how we should educate children. If not, we are ensuring that children and young people will continue to bear unnecessary mental strains and stresses.”

ACP Chair, Heather Stewart said:

"Some level of stress around exams is understandable. Pressure to achieve can come from a number of sources and be internalised sometimes in a helpful way leading to focussed concentration but at other times in a destructive way. 

“As a society, we need to pay attention to the pressures on young people and need to notice when those pressures tip them into worrying behaviours like self-harming or changes in their mood. Perhaps if there were more opportunities for young people to talk about their worries to people who can understand them and offer containment, then stress in its worst form might be alleviated.”

Read the NUT story here

Helpful tips for teachers and parents, around managing exam related stress and worries:

  • Children and young people learn better when they feel secure. Where possible, keep to routines and structures and reassure them through being available for conversation and consistent encouragement. 
  • Treat children fairly - children and young people are much more likely to notice when things feel unfair, whilst under more stress. For example keeping a whole class back from play time when only a few have been disruptive - won’t go down well and could unsettle a class further who may otherwise cope with this response. Depriving them of good and life affirming experiences separate from tests or exams, will only add to the sense of distress and fear of failure. This is important for parents to remember - balance includes hard work and very different activities.
  • Practice without boredom - where possible, keep learning fun and ask children and young people what helps them feel settled and able to concentrate. Obviously some will ask for TV or access to electronics, but music can be helpful.
  • Understand your agendas and be honest where you can. Many young people see exams as being as much for their teachers and educational establishments (and parents) as for themselves. They feel extra pressure when wanting to please adults in their lives and fearing their rejection. Putting children’s and young people’s needs first is a challenge, when so much of learning appears to be about meeting targets, never-the-less young people need to know that adults can be proud of them, not only for achieving good grades.
  • Being able to assess the best way for each child and young person to learn and achieve, is an ideal to aim for. A gradual taking in and applying of knowledge over time, may work better for some.

Heather Stewart agrees:

“Personally I am sorry that there has been a shift to exams only at the end of a course and a loss of continuous assessment. Some young people thrive better on steady application and the opportunity to develop their thinking as they go along rather than having to remember everything and cram all their thoughts into a limited, pressurised moment in time.”

A young person spoke to us about their experience of exams in school: 

I wasn’t happy at school, I was always worried that I was never good enough. No-one ever said, ‘you are doing well, you are great as you are’. Even when I did well, there was always a push to do better. Schools need to remember we are people who are still growing and learning about ourselves.