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How to help your child with exam stress and alleviate some of your own anxieties

Matric exams are one of the most stressful times for teens and parents. With the countdown to the exams upon us, it’s very likely that your child’s experiencing feelings of stress, and even panic.

Try these 9 steps to help guide your child to exam success in what has been a very challenging year in education for learners, parents and teachers alike:

Eight hours of sleep

Getting enough sleep is crucial when teens are writing exams, with eight hours a night the minimum. Reports state that losing one hour of sleep every night could lower your IQ by one point. Because our brains process the information we receive during waking hours when we’re asleep, a loss of sleep hours can result in issues such as a decrease in reasoning skills and linguistic coherence. If your child is struggling to sleep, try an app like Headspace or Noisli. They can choose from different sounds (like thunder, wind or white noise, and even the buzz of a coffee shop) to create their ideal sleep soundtrack. And make sure they don’t have any drinks that contain caffeine, such as tea, coffee, cola and chocolate, for at least four hours before bedtime.

Water, water, water!

Dehydration can lead to tiredness, headaches and poor concentration. With exams taking place in our summer heat, ensure your child is drinking lots of water. US researchers at the Georgia Tech’s School of Biological Sciences have found that dehydration doesn’t just affect your physical ability, but can also lead to cognitive decline, with functions such as complex problem-solving and attention worst impacted. Keep a jug of water and a glass on your child’s desk, and flavour it up with slices of apple and mint.

Revision is crucial

Good revision techniques are crucial for exam success, says Micheal Goodman-Mareme, Group Knowledge Manager at Via Afrika, which publishes a comprehensive range of educational materials for schools and TVET colleges offering invaluable advice about coping with the stresses of exam time. “If facts are learned quickly, they’re forgotten quickly, because they are in the short-term memory. Regular revision allows you to remember facts for a long time, as they’ll be entrenched as part of your long-term memory.”

Past exam papers

Using past examination papers is a useful tool in revision, says Goodman-Mareme. “Past examination papers illustrate the ways in which a subject has been examined in the past. They will help your child become familiar with the ways in which questions have been asked, and alert them to what kinds of questions they may find tricky.” When your child practises exam papers, urge them to do so under exam conditions, with enough time to spare, so that they can revisit their weak areas.

Give them time to study

Now isn’t the time to enforce house chores and tasks. Rather ensure your child’s energy is put into studying. And be mindful of noise. With more family members at home during these lockdown times, make sure music and TV noise is turned down at study times. Exam times may seem to drag on for other family members, so have a positive conversation with everyone present to discuss how important earning a matric, and good grades, are to your child’s future.

Exercise as a release

Exercise serves as a great stress outlet during exams –  even if it’s just a half hour walk. It should be a moderate form of exercise, though, not an exhausting one. Exercise gives the brain an oxygen boost, and releases various brain-boosting hormones like dopamine, which positively influences learning and attention, and serotonin, which boosts mood and helps regulate sleep cycles. Some young people benefit from early morning exercise, while others prefer to exercise after the day’s studying, to help release stress before bedtime.

Regular breaks

Spending hours and hours studying without a break can result in a frustrated, exhausted child. Our attention starts to flag after about 40 minutes, so regular breaks should be set within the study timetable. During the break, encourage activities that allow the brain to take a break from thinking and remembering. A movement break – a short walk or stretching – refreshes the mind, and a quick meditation or breathing exercise in a quiet setting will help to improve your child’s productivity when they return to their books. After the break has ended, gently but firmly, encourage your child to go back into the next studying stretch. A great tip from Goodman-Mareme: “Once back at their desk, your child should take five minutes to sit down with their study material in front of them and do nothing, to help them calm their thoughts and focus their minds.”

Healthy snacks and diet

The brain is the greediest organ in the body, so make sure their overall diet is based on starchy foods like bread, rice and pasta, with added dairy, meat and veg. Food like chips, sugary snacks and soft drinks can result in concentration problems and restlessness. During study breaks, you child should have healthy snacks and drinks on hand. Your child’s favourite snack is a great reward for a successful study session.

On the day of the exam

Keep the house calm and positive. Make sure your child eats a protein-rich breakfast soon after waking, such as scrambled eggs and toast. Other protein-rich foods include cottage cheese, yoghurt, nuts and whole-grain cereal with milk. If your child is too nervous to stomach a breakfast, try a protein shake instead.

After each exam

Spend a bit of time after an exam chatting to your child about how the paper went, and calm them down if they found the questions challenging. If they want to talk, just listen and don’t interrogate them. There’s no point in scrutinising the exam paper at length, and could even demoralise your child after they’ve just given it their all. Use this time to encourage them for the next paper, and give them a pat on the back for their efforts thus far.

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