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Exam Stress: Management and Support

Pop quiz! Think back to your school days – were you the kid who dreaded these words? Or did you get excited at the prospect of testing out your skills and knowledge? Students have many different experiences with exams. Whether our children struggle or thrive academically, peak testing times can be very stressful. Between state exams in April and end-of-year finals, we want to be able to support our kiddos and relieve some of the pressure. Read on to learn all about stress: why it happens, how it affects our wellbeing, and what we can do to cope and support each other during difficult times.

What is Stress?

Stress is a complex phenomenon that shapes how we respond and adapt to our environments. It’s actually an important part of evolution and is meant to help us persevere through challenging conditions. For instance, the “fight or flight” response, a common stress reaction, enables us to react quickly to potential threats, enhancing our chances of survival. But we all know that getting chased by a bear and taking a surprise test are two very different scenarios, so can we best harness our bodily reactions and take control of our situations? Understanding the experience is the first step.

The experience of stress is highly subjective, influenced by individual perceptions and interpretations of the world around us. Stressful events can have a tendency to amplify pre-existing perceptions, reinforcing what we already believe to be true rather than fostering opportunities for new adaptation. For example, a child who thinks that they are bad at math and has an upcoming math exam is likely stressed out, and that stress may be solidifying their negative self-assessment and impacting their performance long before they get a grade back.

In essence, stress is a relationship between our internal thoughts, external circumstances, and emotional responses; it profoundly affects our well-being and ability to cope with life’s challenges.

What DOESN’T Help

There is a lot of stress-management guidance out there, but a lot of it is focused on the physical ways we experience stress, not the cognitive: go on a walk, eat a healthy meal, meditate, etc. Sure, these actions are likely to make a stressed-out student feel good for some time, but the intrusive stressful thoughts will come back when they get back into the stressful environment.

Instead, when we’re helping our children to battle stress, we should encourage them to watch out for the following stress-inducing cognitive patterns:

All-or-nothing thinking: seeing things in extreme terms, with no middle ground.

This way of thinking can make situations seem more black-and-white than they really are. It can lead to stress because it doesn’t leave room for flexibility or compromise.

Example: “I didn’t get an A on the biology quiz last week, so I must be really bad at science and will fail this upcoming exam.”

“Should” statements: believing that things must be a certain way, often unrealistically.

This can make you feel disappointed or frustrated when things don’t go as you think they should.

Example: “I should be able to understand this without help. What’s wrong with me?”

Personalization: blaming yourself too much for things that go wrong, even if it’s not really your fault.

Example: I am a bad student because I took a week off when I was sick with the flu. This is why I’m now struggling.”

Blame: putting all the fault on someone or something else for what went wrong, without considering your own part in it.

Both personalization and blame make you more stressed out by oversimplifying complex situations and highlighting their inherent negativity.

Example: “My teacher obviously hates me, so she is not helping me understand this material enough.”

Stress Signals

Children may experience stress in different ways; do not assume that what you feel stressed about is the same for your child, or that the way you show stress is the same way they will show it. Here are some possible stress signals:

muscle pain
stomach problems
changes in appetite
difficulty sleeping
feelings of anxiety
mood swings
low self-esteem
lashing out
social withdrawal
substance abuse
nervous habits

If you think your child might be suffering from stress, start by talking to them about it in a non-judgmental way. Then, consider speaking with their pediatrician, teachers, and/or school counselor to come up with a plan of support.

If you or a family member needs behavioral and/or mental health treatment, but aren’t sure where to start, read more here or call 888-764-4161. We’re here to support!

About the Expert

janet scolaro

Janet Kahn-Scolaro, LCSWR, PhD Is the Vice President of Behavioral Health for PM Pediatric Care. Dr. Kahn-Scolaro has 30 years of experience working with families and children in crisis, as well as those managing ADHD, anxiety, and depression. She received her MSW from Hunter College School of Social Work and PhD from Adelphi University, where her research focused on engagement in child welfare.