Strengthening Children’s Mental Health During Exams
Dr. Aryn Ziehnert
Stress at school during test and exam times is a time in the school year that comes with a unique set of trials and challenges for children and those who care for them. Besides the academic school work that goes into preparing for these assessments, there is the accompanying stress and concern on the part of parents for their children’s mental health.
An effective way to assist to maintain and strengthen children’s mental health during stressful times at school is to promptly notice signs of stress.
Watch out for stress indicators.
Children and adolescents who experience stress may show it in a variety of ways. Some of the common ways to display stress include the following:
- Worry about a variety of things.
- Feel tense in your neck and back.
- Experience aches and pains, such as headaches and tummy pains.
- Experience interrupted sleep.
- Changes in diet – either eating noticeably less or more.
- Losing interest in hobbies.
- Expressing negativity and having a low mood.
- Feel hopeless and discouraged about the future.
It is very helpful for children when there is another person to discuss their feelings, and the tasks they have to complete in order to adequately prepare. This can be from a parent, a school tutor or a study buddy – they can all provide a sympathetic response to shared worries and help maintain perspective for this time period.
Teachers and school staff with whom your child has a good relationship are also able to provide excellent support for your child, so encourage them to talk with them. If you feel that your child is not coping and not communicating this effectively, then consider approaching your child’s teacher independently.
Nutrition, rest, the home atmosphere, support and more are keys to providing a stable launching pad for your child during this time. By involving your child as much as possible in managing his or her stress, he or she will learn how to effectively handle future stressful circumstances.
A well-balanced diet to improve children’s mental health.
There is an established link between children’s mental health and their nutrition. Many parents have discovered the effect of a sugar-high from soft drinks, sweets, and other high-sugar foods as their children react to the artificial stimulation and then displays the effects of dropping blood sugar levels by become irritable and moody. High-fat and high-caffeine foods and drinks are known to have similar effects.
Encouraging your child to eat a balanced diet is done through limiting access to unhealthy foods. It also involves educating your child about different types of food and what effect they have on one’s body and mind. Then you can include your child in the shopping choices, when he or she has the opportunity to pick out healthy snacks.
Sleep strengthens children’s mental health.
Sufficient sleep that is undisturbed leads teenagers to have improved thought clarity and greater focus ability on the task or work at hand. Studies show that most teenagers need eight to ten hours’ sleep each night.
Similar to adults, children who do not wind down after periods of intense concentration experience poorer sleep than if they took approximately thirty minutes to calm their minds and bodies. This time is very important to enable a solid night’s rest.
Some children will be tempted to work through the required material all night before a big test. This is not often a good idea as sleep will more likely benefit your child far more than a few sleep-deprived hours of last-minute studying.
Relaxing home atmosphere to help children’s mental health.
Exam periods are times when your child is feeling additional stress. Remembering that while faithfully completing chores teaches leadership and taking responsibility, you can look out for ways to be kind and support your child as he or she processes emotions. Reconsider your usual response if there are jobs left undone or your child’s bedroom floor is a mess during this time.
It is easy to take on your child’s stress as your own. Remember that exams are part of getting through school and preparing them for trials in the working world. Staying calm can help give the home a peaceful atmosphere that is conducive to studying. This time will not last forever. Consider how you would want your children to assist your grandchildren during their exam time and look to model that behavior now.
Make studying easier for your child.
A place around the house where your child feels comfortable to study is important for effective exam preparation. Discuss with your child ways that you can help him or her feel supported as he or she revises and practices his or her work.
It will be useful for your child if together you consider practical ideas that will assist in this preparation process. Perhaps your child has never created a revision schedule before or does not know how to secure copies of past exam papers. You can practice these skills together.
If motivation is a challenge, then look at their interests and desires and how can these be fulfilled through a series of goals. Then discuss which of these goals relate to knowing how to learn and answer accurately when asked questions about the work. Show your child how the time they spend revising and writing their exams are connected to life outside of school.
Discuss with your child Colossians 3:23 (NIV) which says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord when it says work as unto the Lord”. By understanding yourself and teaching your child how to learn for the joy of learning, he or she will likely not battle with motivation as much as a child constantly coerced with short-term rewards for good grades.
Discuss feeling nervous with your child.
The state of children’s mental health may be linked with the upcoming exams. This is why it is important to remind your child that his or her feelings are entirely normal. It is normal that your child’s mind and body are focused on this test and that there will be other tests and exams in life when your child may well react in the same way.
Enable your child to bridge the gap between his or her feelings and a positive outcome. If your child is feeling nervous about an upcoming exam, then encourage your child to make sure he or she has practiced the activities upon which he or she will be tested. Not only will feeling prepared be less of an intimidating experience but your child may well be able to channel this stress into focus as he or she sits down with his or her work.
Each child is an individual and will process stress in a unique manner. As a parent, you can help your child face his or her fears and encourage him or her to push hard through the exam process. It may mean that you mimic exam conditions while going through test papers such as using a timer or have them visit the exam venue, as this will make the process on the day more familiar.
By facing fears and not avoiding them, your child is encouraged to focus on what he or she knows and the time he or she has already put into studying. This will help your child feel more comfortable.
Move more during exams.
By getting out and exercising during exams, your child’s energy levels are increased. Your child’s mind is fresher and stress is relieved. The goal is to elevate his or her heart rate for a consistent amount of time for at least 20 minutes each day. Focus on the types of exercise in which your child already enjoys taking part. Walking, dancing, skating, swimming, basketball can be loads of fun and are all useful to relieve stress.
If you can involve other people in these informal exercise sessions, you can keep one another accountable and share more joy in playing a sport you all enjoy.
Relieve the pressure – do not add to it.
A study from Childline, a support group, says that many of the children who contact them say the most pressure they experience during exam times comes from their family members. Remember to do your best to listen to your child, to support him or her and not to be critical. Build up to his or her exam day in a reinforcing and positive manner.
Sometime before the exam, discuss what happens if things do not go well. Let your child know that a poor result is not the end of the road. It is rather an unexpected corner, and life has many of those. Link the idea that hard work is not the only factor that determines an outcome and learning how to dust yourself off and push forward after getting knocked down is part of the process. There may be an opportunity to take the exam again in future.
A useful process in all of this is to keep discussing things with your child once exams start. Shortly after he or she takes an exam, look for ways to discuss it with him or her. Focus on what went well instead of where your child struggled to provide good answers. Then proactively and deliberately move on and focus on the next test.
Celebrate milestones on the exam journey.
As you build up to exams, think about ways to celebrate progressing through each exam. Your child may want to view these as rewards, but they are more a recognition of the time, effort and process that is taking place. Instead of large or expensive things, focus on things that bring joy, perhaps eating a favorite meal or watching a particular show.
A special treat to mark the crossing of the finish line at the end of the exam period is a great idea.
Keep in mind that while some young people feel relief and much better when exams are over, it will not be the case with everyone. If you notice that your child’s mood is particularly low or is showing anxiety which persists and interferes with everyday life, then seeing a doctor or counselor is a good place to start.
Christian counseling for children’s mental health.
If you are looking for additional help for children’s mental health beyond this article, please browse our online counselor directory or contact our office to schedule an appointment. We would be honored to walk with you toward a place of healing and hope.
“Homework”, Courtesy of Annie Spratt, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Fruits and Vegetables”, Courtesy of Nathan Dumlao, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Bubbles”, Courtesy of Drew Beamer, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Confetti”, Courtesy of Jason Leung, Unsplash.com, CC0 License