You sit down to take the final exam, look around bewilderedly and your stomach drops – oh no! I never attended any of these classes.
Even people who graduated high school a decade ago report waking up from the notorious final-exam anxiety dream. If the stress of a big test is enough to provoke anxiety dreams into adulthood, imagine how stressed out today’s teenagers feel.
“Identifying stress in students can be tricky because it can look like several different typical adolescent issues,” says Kevin Kilgore, a school counselor at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor.
Notice if your teen has “difficulty keeping focus, changes in sleep schedule, a dip in academics, frequent headaches and stomachaches and changes in mood or ability to control emotions.”
If your teen is experiencing any of the above symptoms, it’s time to step in with help.
Classic tips for taking big exams
The first thing to do, says Connie Akins, another school counselor at Pioneer, is to talk to the teacher.
“Teachers normally give a review in class, so if a student doesn’t understand something, that’s the time to ask for clarification,” she says.
If a student is feeling particularly anxious about the actual test taking, teachers are sometimes able to let students take exams in smaller groups or separate rooms, Akins adds.
Another classic piece of advice that really works is getting teens to take care of their bodies, especially around test time. Make sure they sleep eight hours and eat breakfast, she says.
One of the biggest ways to make a difference in how stressed a teen is before an exam is attendance, Akins adds. Parents should weigh whether letting a teen stay home for a mental health day might do more damage in the long run.
“Attendance is crucial, because that’s where the instruction happens,” she says. “There are cases where students can’t make it, but as much as possible, attend school and get the things you need from class.”
Creative tips for helping teens ace exams
“Mindfulness seems to be a trendy buzz word recently, but if you dig into it, it’s really practical,” Kilgore says. “Mindfulness, basically, is a practice of being in the moment and not distracted by other things in life.”
Practicing mindfulness is the key here – students can’t expect to suddenly be able to turn mindfulness on during an exam, says Akins. She recommends that students practice breathing exercises far in advance of an exam.
Kilgore says students can try this breathing exercise before a study session: “Focus on their breathing for five minutes – notice the inhale and exhale and notice their mind drifting off and notice bringing it back to this moment and their breath.”
Turning off all electronic devices to better focus can help some students, but Akins says using technology to their advantage is another tip.
“Using group chat for studying has been helpful for some kids,” she says. They can bounce questions back and forth. Plus, teens can use their phones with a countdown timer to break their studying up into intervals, she says. When the alarm goes off, take a break; then get back into it.