Help Your Teen Cope With End-of-Year Exam Stress

Put a positive spin on something most students dread.

Helping Teens Cope With Exam Stress |

Ahhh exams. Everyone’s favourite time of year, right?

You know, it may sound as though I’m being sarcastic but let me tell you – when I was in high school I used to absolutely LOVE exam time. That is, once I had learned how to do it right.

Grades 9 through 11 weren’t my finest. In fact, I remember the day of my Grade 11 math exam quite clearly. I had been failing math all year and it simply hadn’t occurred to me to study for the exam. Filled with anxiety and apathy, I walked into the exam room at 9:55am, 5 minutes before the exam was due to start. I handed in my math textbook and out I went. To The Eaton Centre. To go shopping. I never wrote that exam and yes I most definitely failed math that year. Two years later though, I was on top of my exam-writing game.

After figuring out that I had pretty hardcore anxiety and that it had permeated my entire life (classroom performance included), my parents sent me to the trendy new alternative school in our neighbourhood. My life changed. Caring teachers and smaller class sizes allowed me to get to know myself as a learner. You know what I thrived on? Studying in coffee shops. Burying my head in textbook on sunny patios. Colour coding my notes with ombre-style fine tipped pens. Life changing discoveries, let me tell you. When exams came around, I absolutely loved getting my coloured pens out, scheduling study times into my agenda, and getting cozy for hours at my favourite coffee shops. Why? Because I saw exams as a challenge & opportunity to show off everything I had learned throughout the year, and because I had a plan.

Experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety is totally normal when it comes to doing any high-stake activity and exams are no exception. The good news? There are ways to curb that anxiety before it even hits.

The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From The Tree

Studies have shown that your attitude towards math has a huge effect on the way your child feels about math – especially when you’re freaking out over their exams! Often kids are stressed because they don’t want to let you down. Explaining to your child that you just want them to try their best and learn from their experiences can take a whackload of stress off of their shoulders!

Send Out An SOS

Not all of us remember every single miniscule detail once learned in history class, or math class…or ANY class for that matter! Lucky for you, there are a ton of ways to help your child get the help they need.  Check in with your child’s school to see if they have a peer tutoring program – these are often free! After hours help with teachers is often an underused resource – ask your child’s teacher when they are available. It’s never too early or too late to get a professional tutor – ask your friends for recommendations or do an online search to find someone in your area. My favourite? Get your child to tap into their ‘smart friend’ group – when I was in high school, my mom paid one of my ‘smart friends’ to tutor me and it was super fun (and super cheap)!

Have A Plan

“Wow, I’m so glad I just went through my entire exam period without a plan,” said no one EVER. Seriously, get an agenda out and treat exam time like a full time job. Slot in when you’re studying for what, when you’re making your snacks, when you’re checking your phone. This is the most important part of any anxiety reduction strategy – have a solid plan!

Prove Your Child Wrong

Kids LOVE when their parents prove them wrong – right? When your child is legitimately heading down an “I’ll-never-be-good-enough” spiral, one of my favourite techniques to use is called the ‘reality check.’ Exam anxiety often gets to us by making us feel stupid or incapable, causing a lack of confidence that is essentially debilitating. Get your child to start by writing down the intruding thought on the top of a page, for example “I AM NEVER GOING TO PASS THIS EXAM.” Now make a list of facts that support that, and facts that refute it. Kids will see quickly that they don’t actually believe the negative thought – it is simply an intrusive distraction! For more mindfulness strategies to introduce into you and your child’s daily life, check out this awesome Pinterest board!

Praise Hard Work – Not Good Grades

Getting good marks – the ultimate anxiety inducer! It is beyond important to remind your children that good grades don’t grow on trees – they are a product of hard work! Remember to praise your child’s work ethic regardless of the academic fruit it bears. Eventually, all that hard work will pay off!

Keep Things In Perspective

Your child is writing an exam, not participating in Stephen King’s “Long Walk.” This is NOT a do or die situation. While marks matter, the most important thing that can be gained from the exams is the ability to eventually master the art of studying so that when your child enters post-secondary education and the tough gets going, they can actually deal. Continually remind your child that the largest measure of success is how much they they end up learning about themselves as learners throughout the studying process!​

Let Your Child Do Exams THEIR Way

The most important lesson of all is that no two students study alike. You should never compare yourself or your child to anyone else in terms of their grades, or how they got them. High school exams are a test of self, and of strength. Maybe libraries are your child’s heaven, or maybe, like me, silent spaces are their worst nightmare. Maybe your child needs music to study, or maybe music is the intrusive noise that prevents their brain from functioning. Whatever their catalysts may be, those precious four years of high school are the time for them to figure out themselves as learners. Encourage them to get out there, think outside the box and HAVE FUN. And please purchase a box of ombre-style fine tipped coloured pens – you can’t go wrong with those.

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Vanessa Vakharia is the Founder and Chief Inspiration Officer of the Math Guru. She is a teacher with a Bachelor of Commerce, a degree in Graphic Design and a Masters degree in Mathematics Education. Born and raised in Toronto, 34 year old  Vanessa attended the University of Guelph, D’Youville College, Humber College and the University of British Columbia. She is recognized as a leading expert and published author in the field of Youth Engagement and Education. She specializes in teen engagement in STEM, with a specific focus on engaging young women to embrace STEM as a part of their fluid identities.