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Preparing a Child for Exams

Preparing for and undertaking exams can be a stressful time for children, and their families. According to the National Union of Teachers, 94% of secondary school teachers and 74% of primary school teachers report that their students develop stress-related illnesses in the lead-up to important exams, such as SATs and GCSEs.

What exams will your child take in their school life?

The National Curriculum for England and Wales is followed by all state-funded schools, including academies, in England and Wales, where all children follow a shared curriculum for the duration of four key stages. There are four main national testing points to measure the attainment of each child as they progress to the next key stage.

In primary school, these tests are called Standard Assessment Tests (SATs), and are carried out as follows:

  • Key Stage 1 SATs are carried out at the end of Key Stage 1, when the child is in Year 2.
  • Key Stage 2 SATs are carried out at the end of Key Stage 2, when the child is in Year 6.

In secondary school, tests are carried out as follows:

  • At the end of Key Stage 3, which is the end of Year 9, teachers set their own assessments, which determine students’ eligibility for GCSE subjects, as well as the class sets that students will be in when they enter Key Stage 4.
  • At the end of Key Stage 4, which is the end of Year 10, all students are required to sit an exam for a General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) in each subject they have studied for the last two years. These exams may also involve coursework which has been carried out over a long period of time during their study of the subject. GCSE grades determine what the student can go on to pursue in their further education between 16 and 18 years old.

After Key Stage 4, if the student chooses to stay in academia, they will progress to a Key Stage 5 curriculum, which is not determined by the National Curriculum for England and Wales, but by the chosen exam board. At the end of Key Stage 5, which is Year 13 or Upper Sixth, students will sit A-Level exams for each of the three or four subjects they have chosen. At this stage, students applying to university will have received conditional offers, meaning that their place on their desired course depends on the outcomes of their A-Levels. Some students may choose to pursue post-16 apprenticeships and traineeships.

Child Taking Exam

Why can exam time be so stressful?

The examination period can be a stressful time for children for many reasons, no matter their age or key stage. Some stress can be good, as it can help children to develop other traits such as determination and resilience. However, sometimes stress can be overwhelming and paralysing, especially for children who may not have yet developed the tools that they need to cope.

Parental Pressure

Parents can, knowingly or unknowingly, put a lot of pressure on their children to succeed. Also, children often don’t want to let their parents down, and enjoy it when their parents are proud of them. Hence, they may feel a lot of responsibility to do well in exams and in school generally, tying their academic success to the measure of their parents’ love.

Self Pressure

Often, high attainers are deemed as being naturally smart, but many high attainers work incredibly hard and put undue pressure on themselves to maintain being top of the class. They may also feel that there is competition with their peers. Students may also be conscious of just how important their exams are and feel worried that if they do not perform well, they will not be able to pursue their GCSE subjects or courses at university.

Exam Conditions

Exam conditions can pile on the pressure for even the most prepared students. Recalling information under timed conditions can cause a lot of anxiety and can even cause some students to underperform. This can be seen in students who perform well in class but do not match this in their timed work. Some students report feeling underprepared for coping under exam conditions.

School Pressure

Many schools are under pressure to perform to meet students’ targets. Classes need to obtain a certain percentage pass rate, and naturally, additional revision classes or unrealistic homework expectations may cause students to feel exam pressure. Furthermore, students may have other obligations at school and may have a hectic weekly schedule, causing them to feel stretched and burnt out.

Teachers may become concerned about the level of pressure from parents, their home environment, or about a child’s mental health, based on what a child says or how they act when they get an unexpected grade. Any concerns should not be ignored, and safeguarding procedures should be followed for any worries about a student’s wellbeing.

When is the right time to start exam prep?

There is no ‘right’ time to begin preparing a child for exams, as every child is different. Many argue that exam preparation should be gradual, rather than towards the end of a course, but again, people learn in different ways. Students should be experiencing exam preparation in class, through examples of examination techniques to sitting mock papers, so that they are well prepared for the conditions of an exam room and familiarised with the format of the exam papers.

It is generally agreed that an effective approach to exam preparation is firstly by having enough time to adequately revise all topics. For some students, this might be consolidating notes or doing practice test questions weekly from the start of the course. For others, this could be using school holidays to create a rigorous study schedule. ‘Cramming’, when students pack their revision into a few days or weeks prior to testing, is not recommended. Whilst this technique may work for some, it can often be stressful and ineffective. Studies suggest that revisiting knowledge frequently, over a long period of time, makes for more effective recall.

What do students need to do to prepare for exams?

  • Revision Timetable – In Key Stages 3, 4 and 5, teachers can and should provide students with a list of topics that they should revise for their upcoming exams. If you are unsure, or for some reason this cannot be provided, you can look on the exam board websites for GCSE and A-Level, and can often purchase revision books at reasonable prices. It can be helpful to first rank each topic according to confidence, then divide the time leading up to the exam to revise each topic, putting emphasis on the topics that the child is least confident in.
  • Revising Effectively – Having a format for revision is much more effective than simply reading and highlighting text. For example, the student may have an hour to revise a particular topic. For the first 15 minutes, they may learn the keywords, themes or dates for that topic, covering information and reciting it. They may then use the next 20 minutes to read over their class notes and textbook, highlighting the most important information. For the next 20 minutes, they might look at a mark scheme and attempt practice questions. Finally, they will spend the last 5 minutes making any improvements.
  • Being Well Equipped – It is important that the student has access to the tools they need to revise effectively. For example, they may need:
    – Pens and pencils
    – Rubbers
    – Ruler
    – Geometry set
    – Scientific calculator
    – Highlighters
    – Flash cards
    – Notebooks
    – Folders and dividers
    – Planner
  • A Quiet Environment – It is important that every student has a quiet place to revise at home and at school. These areas should be free from distraction and noise, and should be well lit and comfortable.
  • Rewards – It is important that children are rewarded for their revision. This should be incorporated into their plan. This could be doing a fun activity with friends, watching a film at home, or having their favourite meal with family. It is also important to keep physically active, taking physical breaks between revision sessions.
Child Getting Stressed About Exams

Does my child need a tutor?

A tutor can be very helpful for students who have missed some of their schooling, who have gaps in their knowledge, or who are struggling to keep up in class. A private tutor would generally not be considered for students until they are preparing for their Key Stage 2 SATs and their 11+ exams (known as secondary school entrance exams).

If you feel that your child is at risk of falling behind, home tuition can provide one-to-one time with an expert who can help to identify the child’s weaknesses, and help them to improve. Furthermore, doing this before your child falls far behind is most effective, as they are less likely to be apathetic to learning when they feel that their goal is still within sight.

State-funded primary schools do not prioritise preparing children for secondary school entrance exams, which are often more challenging than Key Stage 2 SATs, and involve verbal and non-verbal reasoning. There are many good 11+ practice books which can help to prepare a child for these exams, and are a much cheaper alternative to hiring a tutor. Nevertheless, a tutor can provide expertise and can also help to prepare them for the interview stage.

Some parents do not feel academically equipped to help their children with their homework, or may not have enough time to help their children with their studies. Thus, seeking out a tutor can allow students to have the academic support they need at home.

If you are trying to get your child into a school that offers a 4+ exam, it can be appealing to seek a tutor. However, at this age, education should be fun and exploratory, and sitting a child around the table for exam preparation could be detrimental to their perception of education going forwards.

Managing mental health during exams

Signs of stress and poor mental health during the exam period may manifest in the following ways:

  • Obsessive with exam revision, taking very few breaks, and forgetting to eat and drink.
  • Poor sleep.
  • A change in their mood, such as becoming more irritable or more withdrawn.
  • Becoming extremely self-critical when they get something wrong.
  • Feeling physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, pain behind the eyes, and body pains.

Who can help with exam preparation?

  • Twinkl is a subscription-based education resource site that offers revision guides, PDF revision lessons and work booklets, all created by teachers and educational experts.
  • Young Minds is a charity dedicated to helping young people suffering with mental health challenges. They have created a useful online guide to help students through the stresses of taking exams.
  • Childline have created a series of videos that can help students to cope with exam stress, as well as offering advice for young people who are dealing with additional stresses alongside exams.
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About the author

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Rose Winter

Rose is a qualified teacher with six years of experience teaching in secondary schools and sixth forms across London. Before this, she worked as a communications officer in the Cabinet Office. Outside of work, Rose can be found researching topics of interest and spending time abroad.

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