Strategies to help your child manage exam stress and anxiety

Final year exams are looming and students everywhere are taking the strain. For the ADHD-diagnosed child, exam time is a time of high stress and anxiety, as research has shown that they experience more stress, nervousness, frustration and difficulty concentrating than their peers without a learning disability. Consequently, as parents of an ADHD child, you need to know how best to support them, both emotionally and practically, to ensure that they’re given the best chance to succeed.

When taking a test or exam, your child could be dealing with a number of the following challenges:

  • Their working memory is impaired, which makes recalling information based on long texts difficult, thus they end up reading and re-reading information.
  • They have trouble retaining and retrieving large chunks of factual information due to long term memory challenges.
  • They have difficulty identifying key information and organising their thoughts around key points.
  • It’s difficult for them to shift focus from one activity to the next, so in an exam, it can be difficult for them to move on from one question, not leaving enough time for other questions.
  • This is also linked to poor time awareness, as they have difficulty managing their time while sitting for an exam.
  • They tend to make careless mistakes.
  • They’re easily distracted, either by the exam environment or they can become preoccupied when other students complete their exams early.
  • Their divergent thinking patterns can also make multiple answers seem correct, which again makes it difficult for them to move on or keep time.
  • They have difficulty following directions.
  • They may also experience cognitive fatigue during the exam.

For this reason, we have listed some tips and strategies to assist your loved one reduce stress and anxiety before and during an exam. Different strategies work for different students, so work with your child to see what works best for him/her.

Emotional strategies

  1. Let them express how they feel about the upcoming exam. While talking about their anxiety symptoms is good, research out of the University of Chicago showed that 10 minutes of expressive writing (about the anxiety) is even better for reducing symptoms. This assists with controlling excessive overthinking and unhelpful thoughts.
  2. Reframe negative self-talk. You may have heard your child say, “I never get good marks,” or “I won’t pass this test.” Encourage your child to come up with positive statements such as “I am prepared and I’m going to do the best that I can.” Self-talk is part of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and has been found to be a successful form of therapy for reducing ADHD-related symptoms. Not only does it reduce the anxiety, but also builds self-esteem.
  3. Reframe the symptoms of test anxiety. Explain to your child that their physical responses, such as sweaty palms, rapid heartbeat or having “butterflies” in their stomach, can be helpful for thinking and reasoning. This can keep them centred even if their body is undergoing stress.
  4. Make them visualise the “perfect test day,” in detail. This cognitive rehearsal exercise helps with anxiety on the day.
  5. Teach them relaxation techniques which they can apply during the exam as anxiety symptoms come on, e.g. deep breathing, clenching and unclenching fists or tapping.

Lifestyle strategies

  1. Ensure that your child gets enough sleep.
  2. Regular exercise helps with focus and executive functioning skills, especially for students with ADHD. Thirty minutes of aerobic exercise a day, four to five days a week, improves focus. (Sleep and exercise are also fundamental in regulating your child’s anxiety and cortisol levels.)
  3. Use essential oils as a stress reliever and for memory. The media network for ADHD information, ADDitude, reported that if you are exposed to the same smell when you study and sleep, you may remember more. So leave a small dish of essential oil near your child when they study, or at their bedside. Certain oils such as peppermint oil can be used for stress relief.

Test strategies

  1. Don’t let your child cram the information before a test or exam. This requires taking in a large amount of work, long periods of focus and no distractions during study time – all of which are harder for the ADHD-diagnosed student.
  2. “Distributed practice,” is a better strategy where the student studies for shorter periods of time over a number of days. In this way, the work is reviewed over a number of days. Sleep also assists with processing and retaining information.
  3. Get past papers (from previous exams) or practise tests for your child to work through. This familiarises your child with the format of the paper and they can learn time management from it.
  4. Teach them some test strategies, e.g. skipping and coming back to questions where your child is unsure about the answer, or for multiple-choice questions, eliminate the wrong answers that your child knows are wrong.
  5. Let them review study notes before going to sleep at night. This technique assists memory retention and allows your child to process the information as he/she sleeps.
  6. Ask the school if they can make any accommodations for your child during the exam, e.g. let them be seated in a room or seat with the least amount of distractions.

By implementing these strategies consistently, your child’s exam stress may be reduced and ultimately it will help your child develop their metacognition – awareness of their thinking and learning, and knowing which strategies work best for them.

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