Beating Exam Stress

Posted: 10 November, 2017

By: Annabella Sequeira

Section: Education, Parenting


All around our country, students are preparing or are already busy writing exams. Our Matric students are already in the thick of it, and those in the lower grades have also already started or are soon to start. Exam time is a time when stress levels are higher than usual. Stress can be a positive thing, in that it helps one to stay motivated and focused. On the other hand, too much stress can be harmful, as it can make one feel overwhelmed, confused, exhausted and edgy. It is important to help our children keep things in perspective and to help them find ways of reducing stress when things get too much.

Let’s look at how stress affects our brains. There are three areas that we need to look at in order to understand how the brain processes stress:

  • Firstly, the Primitive Brain or our Sensory Brain receives all the sensory input from the environment we are in and processes it. This happens on a subconscious level, and we don’t have to think about it. This is also the part of the brain that reacts with a “fight, flight or freeze” response when we feel overwhelmed or threatened. In most cases, we cannot control the initial response, and the brain’s main concern is survival.
  • Secondly, we have the Emotional Brain. The emotional brain is very closely linked with our sensory brain, and when our sensory brain is overwhelmed and stressed, we have great difficulty maintaining our composure. If we are unable to control our emotions, and we are constantly on edge, the sensory brain becomes even more overwhelmed and stressed. As a result, our ability to remain focused and to think clearly becomes hampered, and thus learning and memory are negatively affected.
  • Lastly, our Cortical Brain or Thinking Brain is where all our cognitive functions take place. This is the part of the brain that is actively involved in learning, recalling information, abstract thinking, and problem-solving. We like to call it the CEO of the brain.

Our CEO is very fussy when it comes to working conditions, and it refuses to work when the emotional brain is agitated, and if the sensory brain is then overwhelmed as a result of our emotional state, there is little to no chance that the thinking brain is going to be able to work.

So with this very basic picture in mind, it becomes very clear why it is important to manage our emotions and to self-regulate in order to remain calm and content to focus and learn.

We cannot control our children’s brains, so we have to help them learn calming and regulatory strategies by example.

Let’s look at how we can support our children during their exam time by using simple sensory regulation strategies.

  1. SLEEP:
    Students need to rest and recharge their brains and bodies before writing an exam. Sleep deprivation (less than 5 hours a night) negatively affects one’s ability to recall information and stay focused. In her book “Blame my brain: the amazing teenage brain revealed”, Nicola Morgan refers to a study that showed that the brain stores and rehearses recently learnt information during REM sleep. That means that cramming the night before is a good thing, but not cramming all night interferes with REM sleep. Disconnect before bedtime, and switch all electronics off as they could be keeping your child awake. Artificial light may lower the release of melatonin and thus disturb the sleep/wake cycle regulation. Stop studying at least 30 minutes before going to sleep.
  2. TOUCH:
    Squeezing a stress ball helps children, fidgeters and children with ADHD focus on learning tasks. There are a number of other fidget tools that could be used – fidget cubes and spinners, Thera-dough, elastic bands and paper clips. Massage helps relax the muscles and improve circulation.
  3. SMELL:
    To calm down, one can use certain smells such as lavender in order to reduce stress. Some children do not like any smells, and it is always handy to carry tissues with no scent, that they can breathe into, or tissues that have been infused with a smell that they like. To alert the brain, keep some mints handy.
  4. TASTE:
    Encourage your child to eat small, and to eat often. Eat correctly, and take the necessary vitamins and minerals that your body needs to stay focused and energized. Keep crunchy, healthy snacks near your child so that they can wake the sensory system up when they start losing focus. Snacks should be healthy, with little to no sugars – carrots, apples, nuts, popcorn and pretzels are good examples of crunchy foods. Allow your child to keep a water bottle at his desk – hydration is very important during learning, especially in the current hot climates. Never allow your child to skip breakfast the morning before the exam.
  5. SIGHT:
    Keep the room in which your child is studying clean and clutter-free. Too much clutter in the room or on the desk can create anxiety. Try to get as much natural light onto a desk.
  6. SOUND:
    Having music playing softly in the background can help a child stay focused on the learning task. For a child who is sensitive to noise and easily distracted, a quiet environment is best. They may need to have earphones on in order to stay focused.
    Allow your child to continue with regular sports or exercise routine during exam time. This helps with reducing stress and with keeping his brain alert and ready for learning. Don’t allow your child to study for more than 45-60 minutes at a stretch, and insist on him taking a break. Breaks must be taken away from the desk, and it must involve something completely different. Discourage watching TV or devices, encourage your child to go outside and “just be”.

Keeping our kids calm during exams is not always easy, and keeping ourselves calm is even more difficult. It is important to support them by recognizing their signs of stress, and by helping and guiding them to regulate the sensory system when needed. As parents and teachers, we can help our children not to fear tests and exams, and to be confident when they walk into that exam room. It is a matter of helping them prepare and finding ways to channel their anxiety in order to succeed.

In order to understand the best learning environments for your adolescent, help them by creating self-awareness and insight into their baseline sensory needs.

Annabella Sequeira holds a BSc (Occupational Therapy) degree from the University of Cape Town, backed by 22 years of experience in both the public and private sectors.  She has extensive practical experience in the area of Sensory Integrative Dysfunction in children and is passionate about empowering others to improve functionality and quality of life.


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