Jessica Andrews, head of year five at Marlborough House School, on how to manage exam anxiety
Preparation for formal tests is, at some stage, an essential part of every child’s educational journey. Unfair as it may sometimes seem, we all know that exam success can secure a first choice of school, point to a specialist area of study, define a career path and even save you money on school fees! All parents want the very best for their children, so as a mother and teacher, I understand that test preparation is regarded as a very big deal.
Government figures report that 10 per cent of children aged five to 16 have been diagnosed with a mental health problem, and no doubt the pressure of formal exams has played its part in that statistic. Pre-testing in Year 6 for senior school entry at 13 is becoming more and more common and this can further add to the pressure pupils are already under. Happily for some children, being formally assessed can be a walk in the park, but for others, the fear of failure can prompt tears at bedtime, poor sleep and eating patterns and high levels of anxiety as they carry the weight of their and their family’s aspirations on their shoulders.
Parents have a large part to play in helping to alleviate children’s anxieties by firstly having a realistic view of their child’s ability. A strong teacher/parent relationship is central to developing an understanding of how a child learns best, so tailored revision plans can play to their strengths. Teachers also know how certain tests are designed and can advise parents on where extra effort needs to be directed. For example, experience of computer-based testing is ideal preparation for pre-tests at Year 6, and as the English paper for the 11+ examination is so reliant on a child’s vocabulary, encouraging children to read as much as possible and learn just a few new words each week can pay dividends on exam day. In the lead up to 13+, common questions parents ask include, ‘What else are you doing to prepare my child?’ and ‘Should we get a tutor?’ Yet experience has taught us that many senior schools find this level of preparation unhelpful, as what they really need is to be able to make an honest assessment of a child’s ability – the real ‘them’ on paper, so they can accurately judge whether their school will be the right fit for that child.
For any test, little and often is the best approach to revision. Support is at hand with some amazing apps, which often prove a more engaging way of learning than studying from textbooks alone. There are also programmes parents can subscribe to which offer online practice for the pre-tests, SATS and 11+. But time away from books is also time well spent. Getting enough sleep, eating well and taking time out to play all help in the development of a healthy, active mind. As a teacher, I see first hand that when children are happy, they are capable of so much more in the classroom.
As a final thought, remember that it’s not the end of the world if a child fails to make the grade, for as important as exams are, they are poor indicators of the so-called ‘soft skills’ every child will need in life. Teaching approaches that consider diplomacy, resilience, creativity and pragmatism to have equal status to simply knowing what the right answers are, I believe, preparing children for more than a set of impressive exam results – they are also preparing children to pass the test of time.
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