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How to help your kids handle exam stress

How do you help your children to manage their exam stress? Helen Pike, Master of the Oxford's high-achieving Magdalen College School, knows. Read on and thank us in the summer!

There’s no denying it’s as tough as ever to be a kid nowadays, and academic pressures and exam stress can often wreak havoc on even the calmest of families. We spoke with Helen Pike, Master of prolifically-academic Magdalen College School in Oxford, to find out her best advice for children (and parents) feeling the strain.

The Master of MCS, Helen Pike

Andrew Ogilvy Photography

Are school exams more stressful than ever? 

It’s important to differentiate between stress that can be a fact of life and acutally aids performance – not always a bad thing and something to master – versus low level constant anxiety, that nameless dread that can much more dangerous. Children can also feel that there’s more at stake with their exams now – with the demise of modular exams, there are fewer exams with more riding on them. On the plus side, many more students who don’t make their A Level offers sail into their first choice University than they did ten years ago. As a parent, there is a lot you can do in terms of managing expectations and not piling on the pressure.


Pupil getting results with her family

MCS is a massively high achieving school academically. How do you keep your pupils from burning out?

In a word, sleep! We talk a lot to the children about sleep – I’m obsessed with it. It makes a massive difference to stress levels. Often when the kids feel stressed and unable to cope what they actually are is tired. For mid-teens you should be looking at their getting between 8-10 hours a night, and we encourage them not to sleep in chunks in the weekend or holidays but to be disciplined about night-time routines. The big thing preventing decent sleep, of course, is social media. Parents really should get teenagers off their devices at least an hour before bed. Buy an alarm clock and leave the mobile outside the bedroom. At school we talk to our pupils about the science of sleep – the importance of melatonin production and so on – and we reinforce that to parents too.

When should children stop their extracurricular activities to focus on revising?

I think one of the best ways to reduce stress about exams is to normalise them – so there’s no need to stop regular routines in sports, drama, music – whatever helps children to let off steam. I ask all the pupils facing their major exams to think about how they’re going to maintain their health and balance. It surprises a lot of people, but our pupils have just one day of pure study leave before exams start; the rest of the time we try to keep things as normal  and day-to-day as possible.


Teen at computer

Any advice on how to help kids revise/ do their homework?

If they are in their bedrooms do to make sure that some work is actually happening! Can they keep the door open? If you think there’s an issue, move the computer to a shared space – maybe they can do their revision in the kitchen while you are preparing food. This kind of scenario offers a great opportunity to talking to your teen, too –  doing something else and subtly asking questions about their stresses and studying, without being too obvious. Going for a walk or talking while giving them a lift is another option. Anyone with teens will know how hard it is to ask a direct question and get an answer!


Any gimmicks to help children relax at school?

We’re a busy day school – we don’t have fancy relaxation pods or that kind of thing, but there are of course quiet spaces – the library, sports fields, the medical centre with 3 full time nurses (including one who is a mental health lead), we put on pilates and yoga for the Sixth Formers and we talk a lot – the pupils meet their tutors 10 times a week.


Group Shot throwing results in air with Master Helen Pike of Magdalen College School

How do you balance ambition and wellbeing in a high-achieving school like yours?

Typically only 3% of our A Level grades are below a B, so pupils are used to success. Oxbridge exams and interviews are often the first time where a large number of pupils who apply will not succeed – we had well over a 40% success rate this year with 44 offers, but that still leaves many who didn’t get offered places. So we put in a lot of focus on effort and challenge, on running your own race, and trying not to turn everything into a competition. It’s no accident that our motto at MCS is ‘learn, flourish and serve’ – only one of those is learn.


How can parents lessen their children’s stress levels?

Knowing when to trust your child and when to intervene is the hardest thing as a parent. Ask yourself at what point your parenting might be becoming counter-productive. We run a programme of parent talks around understanding their child’s mental health, managing anxiety, social media, but above all parents have to know their own child. Some pupils need help with structure and revision techniques, while others need a bit more space and to be encouraged to celebrate their achievements. Conversely, one thing we help students with is how to manage their own parents. We advise them to tell their parents about their revision schedule, keeping bedrooms tidy so parents don’t worry or get irritated and so that pupils can study in a peaceful space – a messy bedroom is no friend to revision. Seriously! If parents are supportive and relaxed in the run-up to exams it’s easier for the children.

Visit Magdalen College School’s Senior Open Day on Thurs 12 Mar.

Magdalen College School, Cowley Pl, Oxford OX4 1DZ. Tel: 01865 242191

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