Exam season – controlling the nerves (yours and theirs!)

yay-7020626It was raining this morning as I dropped the children off at school and the pavement is steep and gets really slippery.  My daughter has never forgiven me for falling over dramatically in front of her Headmaster and I was so busy concentrating on my feet that I almost bumped into my friend Wendy.  I knew at once that something was wrong.  She was hunched over and grimacing – not her usual bouncy self.

“It’s this time of year” she explained, “It really gets me down – the exam season! Amy’s got her French oral next week and so we’ve banned English speaking at home. The children can’t understand what I’m saying to them – it took ages to get ready this morning. I’m exhausted.”

She did look shattered.

“Amy hasn’t been sleeping and neither have I. I really don’t know who is more nervous. If she doesn’t pass her Common Entrance I don’t know what we’ll do. We haven’t got a second choice school.”

Amy is one of the brighter girls in my daughter’s year. It seems inconceivable that she will not get into her next school, but Wendy’s predicament is a familiar one. Most of the parents I know are very tense at the moment – and people with older children have told me it only gets worse once you arrive at GCSE and A’levels.

Of course it is natural for everyone to be a little nervous, but I have met so many families where the parents and children have got each into a state of extreme anxiety. Children often take their cues from the grown ups looking after them and can be very sensitive to the concerns of adults. This can end up having a negative effect on them and the entire family. Conversely, the more worried the child becomes, the less likely he or she is to study effectively.

When my colleague Graham Lee and I are mentoring students, we sometimes use a system for both parents and children, to help keep everyone calm. We find using Coping Card before exams is very effective at helping to control nerves in students. Once the child is calm, we often find the parents are more relaxed too.


  • We begin by brainstorming a list of the areas that might present a problem or possible issues that may arise.  We let the child decide what these are – and they vary from worry about forgetting topics for the exam, to interview nerves, fear of panic attacks or forgetting some vital piece of exam equipment.
  • When the child has listed everything that could possibly go wrong and all the potential problems they can think of, we write the worries in boxes on each card.
  • Underneath each box we list in a different colour the actions we would need to take if we were confronted by that problem – our coping strategy.  For example a child might write:

I’ll   be too nervous and won’t be able to answer the exam questions!


So underneath we would deal with this potential problem by listing all the different actions she could take.

Before Exam:

  • Practise deep breathing
  • Positive Visualisation
  • Use acronyms and other study devices to retain information etc

 During Exam:

  • Read the questions more slowly
  • Go onto next question and try this one again later.



  • On the other side of the card the student will draw something which provides a goal – some sort of representation of what s/he is aiming at. It could be a happy face or a picture of the school s/he wants to go to.
  • happy face
  • The card can then be tucked away in her bag and is available for a quick glance if s/he finds herself panicking.

When I first tried this method, I was sceptical that it would work, but again, I have found it has a transformative effect on most of my students and their families.  One girl I was helping was almost making herself ill with nerves and had never slept properly the night before an exam.  Graham and I did some coping cards with her just before her “mocks”. On the night before the first exam, she took the cards to bed – read them before she turned out the light – and slept straight through. Of course she was still nervous on the following morning, but it was nothing she couldn’t cope with. She was beaming the next time I saw her.


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