Exam stress: Advice from a psychologist on how help your child cope during Singapore school exams

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Remember the struggle with school exams? Here's how we can help our own little ones cope.
Is your kid stressed out over school exams? We spoke to psychologist Dr Sanveen Kang-Sadhnani, about helping to ease the pressure on our kids and teaching them how to tackle tests with a healthy attitude.

We all want our kids to enjoy their school years: to learn something new every day, achieve their goals and make lasting friends along the way. Here in Singapore, we’re lucky that a quality education is available to all – and whether your child is in a local or international school, each child will go through the same roller coaster of school life. Right now the huge challenge is exam season, with many kids going through the dreaded Primary School Leaving Examinations (PLSE.) How do we look out for signs of stress in our kids? And how do we approach school exams so that we don’t place too much pressure on our children, but instill the desire to achieve? We all know that Singapore’s kiasu culture can go too far, so how do we help children develop resilience so that they’re equipped to deal with disappointment and keep trying, knowing that we love and support them no matter what?

Dr Sanveen Kang-Sadhnani, Principal Clinical Psychologist at Thomson Paediatric Centre – The Child Development Centre, recently spoke at an expert panel hosted by Milo on the topic of Going Beyond Grades – Nurturing Resilient Singapore Children Who Never Give Up. She spoke to us about how we can help our kids during a stressful time, and develop a healthy attitude toward school exams.

How do we identify stress in our children and what are the different ways it manifests in different children?
Younger children may find it difficult to recognise and verbalise when they are experiencing stress. For children, stress can manifest itself through changes in behaviour and even feeling physically ill. Common changes can include acting irritable or moody, withdrawing from activities that used to be pleasurable, routinely expressing worries, complaining more than usual about school, crying, displaying surprising fearful reactions, clinging to a parent or teacher, sleeping too much or too little, or eating too much or too little. Stress can also appear in physical symptoms such as stomach aches, nausea and headaches. If a child makes excessive trips to the school nurse or complains of frequent stomach aches or headaches (despite the absence of a medical condition), or if these complaints increase in certain situations (eg before a big test) that child may be experiencing significant stress.

Can you share some stress management strategies that we can teach our kids?

  • Try relaxation exercises, such as controlled breathing or visualisation.
  • Talk about ways to calm down when stressed – this may mean learning to walk away from the task and coming back to the task energised and recharged.
  • Teach them problem-solving techniques.
  •  Encourage your child to listen to their body. While it’s normal for a child’s stomach to feel jumpy on the first day of school, leaving class because their stomach hurts or waking up repeatedly with a headache is a sign there’s too much going on.
  • Prepare your children to deal with mistakes and things not going as planned.

What are the most important things for parents to remember while supporting their child through exam time?
1. Recognise that your child has strengths and weaknesses.
2. Also recognise that your actions and comments can impact your child’s stress levels. Therefore, it is important for parents to manage their own stress.
3. Provide your child with emotional support. This would include encouraging your child to take breaks, using relaxation strategies and allowing space for discussions of their anxieties.
4. Ensure your child has sufficient sleep and nutrition to persist through their learning.
5. Teach effective study and learning habits.

Do you agree that a child’s effort is more important than the result?
Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Putting in effort and willingness to try again builds resilience. Children who do not try often are fearful of trying or have succumbed to their perceived sense of weakness.

How can we help our kids deal with disappointment and to keep trying their best?
Talk with your child and their teacher. Sometimes, there may be a reason for why your child is underachieving. This can be due to a specific learning impairment, attention issues, emotional problems and specific language impairment. Support to manage this is available in the community. Explore a plan with your child to assist him or her. This shows your child that it is okay to try again and also teaches problem-solving skills.