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December 02nd, 2016

Handling anxiety around the 11+

As many parents and children head into the last weeks before 11+ exams, final preparations begin. There is a long list of things to check before the day itself – test papers completed, tick, clear pencil case purchased, tick, arrival time and travel plans checked, tick, arrangements for siblings made, tick, nutritious breakfast and early night planned, tick….. 

Even with all your preparations, your child will probably still get anxious. This is the real thing; they have not done it before, they know it matters and they may well have picked up that you are nervous. They probably also know that getting nervous won’t help them. 

You might take your child aside for a quiet word….. “There’s no need to be nervous, everything is going to be fine, and you just need to breathe and stay calm so you can do your best”

This kind and practical advice might be reassuring. As the tummy flutters start you remember what Mum or Dad said, and you breathe and maybe it all settles down…. 

Maybe. 

But hearing that you need to manage your nerves is not the same as being able to manage your nerves. Managing anxiety is a really important life-skill, and it takes more than a few minutes of pep talk…… 

We need to directly approach our children’s anxiety about the approaching exams. It may not feel natural, it may even feel the wrong thing to do. But it will help them if we say things like “I imagine as the exam gets nearer you may well be getting nervous, perhaps it is rumbling away and you’re not sure what to do about it” or “Maybe you’re scared about feeling scared about the exam, even though you have worked so hard on all those tests.” 

Despite lots of practical and also emotional preparation, my son was overwhelmed by nerves on the morning on his 13+ exam. He turned as white as a sheet as we arrived at school, his eyes filled with tears, and he started shaking his head…. I so wanted to take these feelings away, I wanted him to feel better – not just for himself and for me, but for the results! I had to dig really deep to say “This is a very tricky moment, you have worked really hard and kept yourself very calm, and now it’s a few minutes away and the nerves have hit you hard and fast and big. Perhaps they have caught you by surprise and that is really tough….” This gave my son a moment to feel OK about not feeling OK, and I saw him trying to pull himself together, and I put my hand on his shoulder. We stood there for a few minutes, and then he dashed into the cloakroom to splash his face. And then he walked off to the exam hall. 

The truth is anxiety is already present in our homes – so we’re not going to introduce it or make it worse by talking about it.  In fact, when we NAME IT we have a chance to TAME IT. 

Let’s give our children a chance to recognise and acknowledge their nerves, by identifying them and then supporting them to work their way through their feelings. We may still give the advice about breathing, but we approach it in a different way. 

We can teach children to manage anxiety in a few ways. 

First, we can model our own approach to nerves– verbalise how you feel when you’re doing something new or difficult or important,  and show them how you handle this. (“I am so excited about driving Dad’s new car, and I am also worried. I think I need to get to know where everything is before I turn the engine on, and then maybe I should do a practice run around the block before we set off to Grandma’s house.” 

Be open about the benefits of anxiety.  Any performer will tell you that those tingling and jangling adrenaline-fuelled nerves are what can propel you further, keep you going and take to you to new heights – if you welcome and harness them. No nerves? That’s just not true. 

Discuss how nervousness feels – can we visualise or describe nerves?

When I asked my sons, I was astonished how clearly they could express their fear! One son said he feels cold and wants to stay very still; he described it as feeling blue and fragile, like glass. My other son described his anxiety as red and bubbling and it makes him want to run. 

And what are the early warning signals that things are building inside you? I realise now that I’m concerned about something when my fingers start twitching and I can’t settle to one task.  Ask where in their body do they feel the nerves? Tummy, head, arms or legs? 

We can refer to other people – it’s not just them. How does Tom Daley feel standing on tip toes at the end of a 10m diving board? They may look completely calm and relaxed – how do we think they manage it? 

Talk about various calming techniques that may work for them. They may need a different one to those that work for us. Some well-known options are breathing, visualizing a serene and happy place, or a balloon floating into the distance, or maybe they need to sing or talk to themselves, or have a mad dance around the house to release tension? Whichever one catches their imagination, give it a go and practice it, often. 

Obviously doing mad dances or tapping fingers or feet in the exam hall isn’t going to be an option, so it’s likely they will need some alternative calming techniques. (My son takes blu-tak into exams, he squishes it between his fingers in his pocket. )

The trick is to use these techniques early enough – hence the need to spot early warning signs. 

So, just as with revision preparations, emotional preparations will help your child deal with exam nerves but also with anxiety generally.

 

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