5 Ways to Reduce Your Child’s Stress Caused by SATs and Other Tests / Exams
Children are arguably under more stress than they ever were. Between the seemingly never-ending onslaught of primary school tests / SATs and the pressures brought about by social media and associated issues such as cyber-bullying, it seems that children barely have the opportunity to enjoy their childhoods anymore.
But it doesn't have to be that way. It may be difficult to change the world we live in - it seems unlikely we can turn back the clock and get rid of social media (nor would we necessarily want to) and we aren't able to directly influence government decisions regarding SATs and other tests (and this post does not intend to make a political statement about the appropriateness of these tests), but we can teach children to manage and reduce the stress they feel. We can teach them to handle life's ups and downs, including SATs and other tests and exams such as GCSEs and A levels, without getting overly stressed and without letting the stress affect their health/wellbeing or become debilitating.
This article will be useful to you if you have primary school children and are worried about their stress levels caused by tests / SATs or other factors, but will also be useful for you to share with your teenage children who may be suffering from GCSE or A-level exam stress. The information is also equally valid for university students and adults at all stages of life; we could all do with learning to manage our stress levels.
A small amount of stress can be good for us - it enhances performance by making us sharper and more focused, narrowing our focus to one single task. It is a natural 'fight or flight' response that is designed to save our lives and it does the job well. By releasing cortisol, the stress hormone, our body's stress response kicks in and we can make this work for us, so a little bit of stress will not harm your children and will actually help them perform better in tests, in sports etc. But too much cortisol is damaging and this article will show you how to minimise stress and reduce the amount of cortisol in the body.
5 Ways your child can reduce stress caused by SATs or other tests and exams
1. Laugh - a lot!
Laughter really is the best medicine! Laughter is a form of physical exercise, so a sustained period of laughter (we're talking belly-aching, can-barely-breathe laughter!) releases endorphins, the happiness hormones. For the same reason, laughter is actually a great pain killer, too! Laughter, like other forms of physical exercise, is also a way to get rid of excess cortisol (stress hormone) in the body.
'How do you get your child to laugh every day when she's snowed under with revision and stressed to the eyeballs?', I hear you ask! As well as spending time together watching funny TV shows, funny YouTube clips etc, there is another simple answer: Laughter Yoga! 25 seconds into the video below, you can watch Year 4 children explaining and demonstrating Laughter Yoga. Basically, Laughter Yoga allows you to laugh for no reason; without need for jokes, comedy or humour. It is of course most fun when practised in a group, but works equally well alone!
The key is to be open-minded, smile lots (and, if in a group, make lots of eye contact) and just start laughing. To help with this, you can do various things such as clapping, pulling faces, miming out scenarios (best if they are situations where you might get stressed but that you choose to laugh off instead through Laughter Yoga, such as stepping in dog poo, for example...that's one of the children's favourites!). You will usually find that the fake laughter turns into real laughter, but even if it doesn't, the effects will still be the same as you're using the same muscles for fake laughter as for real laughter; your mind may know the difference, but your body doesn't!
The main thing is to laugh lots - at least 10 minutes or so at a time - and ideally daily, to keep stress at bay!
As Jayne explains in her presentations to teachers and parents, when she was ill, she found herself unable to breathe one day. After numerous tests, her doctors told her that her illness hadn't deteriorated and that her difficulty breathing was stress-related. She somehow, instinctively, went and bought a meditation CD - and she'll be the first to say that until that point, she'd have never considered meditating as she thought of it as a bit 'woo-woo' and 'out there'! But she bought this CD and, from the very first time she meditated, she never struggled to breathe again. This is the power of meditation!
Meditation doesn't require any special skill or equipment. There are many ways to meditate and the simplest meditations are breathing ones, which can last from one minute to however long you want them to! In her 'Wellbeing' session, Jayne teaches pupils a very simple yet highly effective 3-minute meditation. In the video below, Year 4 children have re-created this. Jayne uses chimes in her meditations with the children, so they reproduced this sound, too, but it is not essential to use chimes.
3. Do something for someone else
Altruism and kindness are, in a way, very selfish behaviours, because they make us feel great! When we do something for someone else, we get that lovely warm glow of satisfaction of having done a good deed. The bigger the sacrifice/effort for us, the better we feel from our act of kindness.
Kindness and altruism help us feel like we belong to something bigger than ourselves - whether it's a friendship group or a wider community. This sense of belonging reduces our stress levels. There is also evidence that altruistic acts can stimulate the production of the painkilling, happiness-inducing endorphins. Altruism has also been associated with improved health and immunity! This article goes into more detail and gives some more benefits, as well as the research behind them.
There are many ways to encourage your child to be kind and altruistic. First, lead by example: Perhaps you can volunteer in your child's school, or a local charity. Encourage your child to recycle their toys by donating them to those less fortunate. Ask your child for help - rather than defining something as a chore they have to do, explain to them that it would really help you if they set the table for you as you're really tired and you're busy cooking dinner, for example. When they tell you about something that happened in school - perhaps another child that is going through a difficult time - encourage your child to explore ways to help the other child. You can also encourage your child to carry out 5 random acts of kindness per day - these don't have to be big acts; it can be as simple as holding a door open for someone.
One of the great ways your child can help others before tests / exams is by helping his or her friends in subjects that he or she is more confident in. This will not only make your child feel great for all the reasons outlined above, but by explaining a topic or subject to another child, he or she will become more confident in the subject, too, thus reducing stress in the lead-up to the test / exam and leading to better scores.
4. Sprinkle 'Little Happiness Ingredients' over your life!
The 'Little Happiness Ingredients' are the things that you do 'just because'; the things that make your heart sing. They are life's equivalent of using salt, pepper, herbs and spices in your food to lift its flavours!
It's easy, especially in the lead up to SATs and other tests / exams, to forget to make time to do things we enjoy. "I don't have time" is the mantra of the stressed! But taking a break to do something enjoyable will actually help your child concentrate better and be more productive. Just like your muscles can't work constantly when training, your brain also needs rest breaks.
Encourage your child to keep up with their hobbies, especially when they're revising and as they get older and school life becomes more demanding. Ensuring they still spend time with their friends, getting fresh air as often as possible, continuing with their sports, musical or other leisure endeavours - these will all help reduce stress levels and improve academic performance.
Any activity that promotes the social and emotional development and well-being of your child will be beneficial not only to his or her enjoyment of life, but to their academic achievements, too.
5. Embrace challenges!
We've already explored, at the beginning of this article, the fact that a little bit of stress can be good for us. As outlined in this article, much of the effect of stress on our bodies and minds depends on our perception of what stress does for us. It is therefore important to minimise the "this is stressful and that's bad for you" messages our children receive when it comes to SATs and other tests / exams.
Additionally, one key way to build resilience is to actually experience difficulties. If our children go through life without big challenges or obstacles, they are likely to become less resilient and therefore less able to handle life's challenges later on.
In this article in the New York Times, Maria Konnikova summarises much of the research into what makes us resilient. She explains how there is always a balancing act between resilience and life's stressors - if the stressors are too many or too strong, we become overwhelmed, but just the right amount allows us to become more resilient, stronger. She also cites research carried out by George Bonanno, which highlights the importance of perception: "Events are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic." If you can encourage your child to see tests / exams as an opportunity for personal growth - learning from the experience (so that they gain practice at revision and taking exams and get better and better at these activities), exams are less likely to cause him or her debilitating stress levels.
Jayne, Elizabeth and I teach all of the above, and more, on the Resilience Wellbeing Success programme, so if your child is in a school running the programme, they are already learning about this. Reinforcing it at home will further embed the learning.
If you have any thoughts or comments regarding this article, please comment below or get in touch with us.