Exams. For most, the mere mention conjures images of intimidating rooms with desks laid out in daunting rows, memories of stern looking invigilators, and breaking out in cold sweats. And this is just amongst those of us who have finished school, we whom never again need sit writing frantically as the clock ticks.
What practical steps can parents and teachers take to reduce this pressure and anxiety from testing in our children? It’s actually pretty simple. Get them to laugh!
Fight or Flight
Many of us have heard of adrenaline, the ‘flight or fight’ hormone that gets the heart racing and the body moving in times of stress and excitement. When you see that spider, snake or credit card bill and you have recoiled half way across the room before you even realise that you are moving, that is thanks to adrenaline. It gets your muscles working instantly. But it has a cousin, cortisol.
Cortisol is a hormone that effects the brain during times of stress. Its role is to stall logical, analytical thought so that our instincts can take over. Imagine that you are relaxing by a creek when you notice a crocodile on the bank beside you. You don’t want to sit there pondering how it keeps its teeth so clean without a toothbrush. You want to focus on getting out of there. You need to shut down the analytical part of your brain. That is cortisol’s job. Cortisol is triggered by stress. And unfortunately for our children, not only are tests and exams a time for analytical and logical thought, they are also stressful.
How many of us have experienced ‘brain freeze’? Those moments when it seems that your brain is in open rebellion. When you can’t recall what it is that you need to know in that moment. When trying to think seems like swimming against the current in the wet-season. At times like these, our and our children’s instinctive response is “I’m stupid, I can’t do this.” But now with our understanding of brain chemistry, we can teach them that this is a completely natural effect of cortisol. Simply realising this starts to reduce their stress. And if they reduce stress, they reduce cortisol. Which further reduces stress. Which further reduces cortisol. What a wonderful cycle!
Laughing and Smiling
But there’s more! One of the most effective ways to reduce cortisol is to laugh and smile. On the morning of a test, find something to laugh about with your child. Share a joke, remind them of a funny story or a cherished memory. Encourage them to
remember this during the exam and smile, particularly if they feel that their memory is freezing up and their cortisol levels will reduce. Their brain will unlock and they will be able to think again.
I have trialled a range of activities to reduce exam stress with my students, many aimed at bringing a smile to their face during exams. These have included teaching them about cortisol and its effects on the brain, giving them a lolly during an exam and including jokes and personal messages in their test papers. When surveyed, students reported a reduction of stress of over 20 percent.
Before taking these steps to reduce students’ exam anxiety, I expected there to be a small but worthwhile impact. Having recorded students’ reported anxiety levels before and after these steps were taken, I was honestly surprised by the size of impact that they had. I now use these stress reduction steps with all of my classes and encourage parents to get their children smiling and laughing on the morning of exams too
Top 5 Tips for Reducing Exam/Testing Stress
- Start studying early and do a little each week.
- Review work by writing tips and reminders to yourself as annotations.
- Get a good night’s sleep before exams. Put devices away at least 30 minutes before going to bed, the blue light from screens prompts your brain to wake up.
- Don’t try to “cram” in the last hours before the exam, but do read over your annotations, this will be much more helpful.
- If your brain starts to freeze, remember, it’s natural! Breath, smile, relax and it will pass.