It’s coming up to that time of year again. Spring is upon us and once again thousands of young people up and down the UK are bracing themselves for exam season.
Exams may be an inevitable right of passage for most young people, but they can be daunting. The pressure of these few short weeks- where years of learning are put to the test in just hours, can feel hugely overwhelming. It’s normal for young people to head into this time with a range of questions and concerns- What if my mind goes blank and I can’t remember anything? What if I need to pop to the toilet during the exam? What happens if I’m ill on exam day? The ‘unknown’ factors of the exam itself (on top of the longer-term worries about performance on the day impacting our grades and future career paths), can further increase nervousness and anxiety levels. Also, let’s be honest, the thought of sitting for a couple of hours in a cold sports hall or re-purposed lunch hall in complete silence next to your peers, with an invigilator keeping a watchful eye on you, is not an experience many of us look forward to.
So, as youth leaders, how can we walk this path alongside the young people we support and help give them some key strategies and advice around how to navigate this season with confidence whilst keeping their calm?
So here’s 5 things we can do to support young people ahead of exam season
1. Encourage conversation about emotions and help young people communicate how they feel
It’s important that we let young people know that it would be unusual if they DIDN’T feel a little anxious heading into this season. Our bodies need a certain rush of adrenalin and cortisol to motivate us into action, that’s just how we’re designed. It’s good to recognise and be able to name these emotions, but not fear them. So, this is a good time of year to run some emotional literacy activities.
Maybe have a go at using Youthscape’s anxiety resource WhatIf? Or for a more casual activity the new talking about emotions playing cards or emoji dice both offer a game based activities helping build these skills in young people in a fun relaxed way.
2. Help a young person to create a good self-care routine
Going into this time with a good plan in place for how to look after yourself is key. With just a little prep to think about this ahead of exam time can help a young person feel more confident and calm . Create a good rhythm of revision and rest (remind them that God actually commands to rest as it’s so important to keeping us healthy!)- maybe each hour of revision take 15 mins off to eat something, listen to music or walk around the block to get some fresh air. Keep an eye on your diet and try to avoid too many sugary foods or caffeinated/high energy drinks…keep your water intake good as that helps your brain to function well. Sleep is important, so try to get a good sleep routine in place- screens off an hour before bed, doing something that helps your body to wind down and feel able to rest. Include fun things to look forward to in your week- arrange a catch up with friends or time to do something you enjoy like a sport or hobby.
3. Check in regularly
Outside of ‘group’ times where you would normally meet up, it’s good to check in at other times during the week to see how they are doing and make them feel supported and prayed for during this time. Maybe meet up for a coffee or drop them an encouraging text message a few times a week. You could even drop off some revision snacks as a gift.
4. Revision is important but encourage breaks
Include weekly revision break activities into your youth group schedule. Perhaps a basketball game or even a silent disco and encourage those in your group to put down the revision notes for an hour and do something that re-energises them and gives their bodies and brains a break. They will return to the books feeling more focused, refreshed and alert
5. Help them to still connect with God during this season
During busy times, our prayer life can get pushed aside as we have so much other stuff to think about. Try to encourage young people to find connection points during the day with God where they can keep the conversation going and remind themselves that He is there. Maybe that could be listening to a worship song or even having a 5 min prayer ahead of opening the revision books that day- asking God to help you focus and retain the information you need to. Maybe think about giving them a visual Bible verse that they can display above their desk at home that will serve as a reminder of how much God loves and is rooting for them- just something they can quickly glance at and be reminded that God goes into this season with them.
5 ways we can help young people to prepare for exam days
1. Encourage them to stick to their routine
The rhythm of routine can be good for us and on exam days it can help us stay calm. Maybe suggest that getting organised the night before an exam can form part of their routine- so that everything is packed up in their bag and they don’t need to rush around in the morning. Encourage them to try to eat breakfast before they head out (it doesn’t have to be much but even a banana can give you a good start to the day). You could even hold a breakfast club where they can pop into on their way to school and pick up some fruit or healthy snacks to start their day.
Once they get to the exam remind them that to go into that space in the way THEY need to without feeling as if they have to join in with the pre-exam chatter. If they need to put headphones on to clear their mind from other distractions, then do it. If sitting quietly and flicking through notes is helpful do that. Remind them that they do not need to conform to what others are doing in this moment.
2. Try to avoid too much caffeine
Caffeine can often be our go to drink when we feel that we need an energy boost but it can also increase our anxiety levels ad that is not always the most helpful thing on exam days. Maybe encourage coffee loving young people in your group to go for de-caff or a smaller sized cup than normal (this should also help with not needing to pop to bathroom during the exam!). Also remind them that they can take a bottle of water in with them- most exams let you take this in with the label removed.
3. Allow yourself time to get to the exam
It’s good to get to the exam venue comfortably ahead of the exam start time, so you are not going into this situation already feeling panicked that you are running late with your heart racing as you’ve just run from home. Getting there at a relaxed pace can really help make you feel more prepared, so encourage young people to think through timings ahead of exam days and leave enough time to travel in.
4. Practice breathing exercises ahead of exams
Breathing exercises can be a great way of releasing tension in our bodies and regulating anxiety. Help young people to go into their exams with a range of exercises they have learnt beforehand. These can then be used either when they are waiting to go in or once they are sat at their desk and waiting for the exam to begin. Search box breathing online as one option to try.
5. Have a few grounding exercises up your sleeve
If we start experiencing panic in a situation like an exam, having a few grounding techniques to try can really help us reconnect with ourselves and re-focus our minds. Labelling can be a good grounding exercise, maybe try listing the colours of everything you see in the room ‘the table is blue, the window sill is white, my shoes are black etc…’
5 things we can remind young people to do after exams
1. Don’t dissect the exam questions with others
This can be really unhelpful and increase anxiety levels even though the exam is now over. Asking others how they answered the questions and realising you put something different can make us panic that we got the answer wrong- were in fact that may not be the case. Dissection of the exam is just unhelpful and we should encourage young people to leave the exam behind as there is nothing they can do to change answers at this point.
After our bodies have been in state of high alert and the adrenalin and cortisol fades away we can can often be left feeling pretty exhausted or perhaps even a bit shaky. So this is a good time to take some time out, relax and recover. Maybe just watch a film or have a bath…whatever it takes to make your body feel calmer and comforted.
3. Do something nice to reward yourself
Planning in reward treats can be a great unwinding exercise. Maybe get your favourite ice cream in ahead of the exam but save it for afterwards as a well done gift.
4. Have some fun
Exam season can feel really heavy and serious so make sure you encourage young people to factor in some fun. That can look different for everyone but as a youth leader maybe during exam season organise some fairly ridiculous activities to make your young people laugh- a film night, a fancy dress event, a brand new wide game…the list is endless.
5. Remind them that their worth is in God
Exams can shift our focus into believing that we ARE our grades and that is the only thing that will determine our worth in the world. Help remind young people during this season that their worth is found elsewhere- yes exams are important, but ultimately God has a plan for our lives and whatever our grades turn out, He has exciting plans in store for us and we can trust Him for our future.
Proverbs 3:5-6 TPT
Trust in the Lord completely, and do not rely on your own opinions. With all your heart rely on him to guide you, and he will lead you in every decision you make. Become intimate with him in whatever you do, and he will lead you wherever you go.