UAE: How parents can help students deal with exam pressure

One has to be proactive in monitoring for warning signs of stress or mental health issues


Nasreen Abdulla

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Image used for illustrative purpose. Photo: File
Image used for illustrative purpose. Photo: File

Published: Wed 20 Dec 2023, 6:00 AM

Last updated: Wed 20 Dec 2023, 11:05 PM

When 12-year-old girl A.K. was brought to clinical psychologist Dr. Arfa Bhanu Khan at Aster Clinic Bur Dubai, she had been missing school for over one month. She experienced palpitations at school; had crying spells and was anxious and restless every time.

“After detailed analysis, she revealed that she was scared to face her exams and felt pressured thinking about her marks,” said Dr. Arfa. “Her exams were approaching and her symptoms had increased to such an extent that she refused to go to school.”

Thankfully, a combination of techniques to help set goals, reduce anxiety and manage stress allowed A.K. to face her fears and attend her exams. She was, however, not the first student to face such situation and will certainly not be the last. In fact, experts say that teachers and educators are on high alert especially during the examination times.

Lisa Johnson, principal of American Academy for Girls, told Khaleej Times: “We try to be proactive in monitoring for warning signs of stress or mental health issues, especially during exam periods. Teachers and counsellors are trained to observe changes in behaviour, such as increased absenteeism, decline in academic performance, changes in social interactions, or signs of anxiety and depression.”

React calmly

In the instance of a not-so-desirable result, it is important for parents to react calmly, according to Jen Cruickshank, deputy head of Secondary at Dubai British School Jumeirah Park. “Avoid expressing disappointment or anger when your child receives their results, as this might exacerbate their feelings of failure,” she underscored, adding: “Instead, offer reassurance and let them know that setbacks are a part of learning. Create a safe and non-judgmental space for your child to talk about their feelings regarding their performance. Listen attentively without criticism and validate their emotions. Avoid comparing them to their peers or siblings.”

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She further elaborated that students’ stress is not limited to exam times. “For some students, the end of an examination series does not eradicate the feelings of stress or anxiousness as they move closer to receiving their results,” she said. “For some, it can mean an added pressure of their measured performance on a results transcript.”

Last month, a student had gone missing from the Arabian Ranches for over eight hours, triggering a massive hunt. It was later revealed that the "highly sensitive child" had experienced emotional distress due to not meeting expected exam marks.

Dr. Arfa also revealed that part of her approach for students experiencing exam stress includes psycho-educating parents regarding the mental health of the child and managing their expectations from the student.

Role of schools

Lisa said that schools play an important part in supporting children during the high-stress time. “Implementing a balanced academic schedule, providing study guides, and hosting time management workshops can ease exam pressure,” she said.

“Prioritising mental well-being through counselling services, relaxation activities, and physical exercise fosters a healthy school environment. Lastly, creating an open dialogue about exams allows students to discuss anxieties and stressors, ultimately reducing the pressure they feel. We believe these strategies contribute to a more supportive and effective learning environment.

Coping techniques

According to Jen, it was important to teach children coping techniques to manage stress and disappointment. “Encourage activities such as exercise, relaxation, or hobbies that they enjoy, helping to alleviate stress and improve their well-being,” she said. “Our careers counsellor is always present at results days and can provide in-the-moment advice and support, in addition to our leadership and pastoral teams. Quiet spaces where students are able to express their emotions comfortably are also accessible.”

She said it was important to remind children that examinations are just one aspect of their academic journey and not a reflection on their entire potential.

“Help them see that there is a bigger picture beyond examination results,” she said. “Supporting a child after a disappointing outcome requires patience, understanding, and a focus on their well-being.”


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