Give them a helping hand with these top-of-the-class tips for coping with exam stress.
In August each year thousands of GCSE and A-Level students find out whether they’ve achieved the grades they need to secure their places at college or university.
And you, like every parent, will want to support your child so that they can reach their full potential.
Although it’s down to them to do the learning and revision, it’s possible to pass on the encouragement that ensures they’re inspired and happy, sleeping well and not too stressed to revise and do coursework.
Learning is central, but there are other things – namely nutrition, health and wellbeing – to think about while they’re studying that’ll help them along the way to achieving their academic goals.
But what else can you do to make sure their brains are in the best of health?
In this article, we outline
Lifestyle factors to pay attention to during exams
Before we dive into the detail, it’s worth laying out the basics. The sorts of areas of your kids’ lives that may need re-addressing during exam season include:
- Mental wellbeing
9 tips to keep your child healthy during exams
Read on to find out more about how you can keep your child healthy during exams
Support their brain power with omega-3 fatty acids
During exam time, it’s key that they do all they can to boost their memory, concentration and alertness so they can perform to the best of their ability.
Nutrition has a huge role to play in mental agility so be wary and ensure that they don’t skip meals or rely on coffee or sugary snacks to keep them awake.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for our brain health. They are highly concentrated in our brains, and nutritionists believe that they’re important for our brain memory and function.1
To make sure they are providing their body with enough, especially during exam time, you should try and encourage them to eat two portions of fish a week (one should be oily fish) or eat other omega-3 rich foods such as pumpkin seeds, walnuts, rapeseed oil, soya and tofu.
Alternatively, you may wish to ensure they take omega 3 supplements.
Ensure they’re getting good sleep and some relaxation
Cramming for exams too late is never a good idea as it increases stress levels. Taking regular breaks is crucial so why not use the opportunity to rustle up well-balanced meals that are bursting with the vitamins and minerals that their body requires?
Teenagers are renowned for being at the lazier end of the scale. However, you should encourage them to take brisk walks which can help blow away the cobwebs and gives them time to reflect on what they’ve just revised.
It’s very important that they keep themselves hydrated and get a good night’s sleep every night.
You should encourage them to get eight hours of undisturbed sleep, but if they’re finding drifting off difficult, they may need to adjust their bedtime routine.2 Plus, sleep has been shown to help with expansive thinking and encourage creativity.3,4
Revising all night and then jumping into bed as soon as they’ve put down their books or logged off their computer isn’t ideal.
Instead, encourage them to wind down, perhaps even having a relaxing bath to prepare both their mind and body for sleep.
Remember, however much you want them to do well, don’t push them too hard as they won’t perform to their potential if they’re feeling exhausted. It won’t help them in the exam room and could impact their immune system too, meaning that they’re more likely to fall ill.
Getting good grades can feel like the priority at the moment but their health and wellbeing are much more important, and the family will be thankful for it later on.
Keep on moving
Being in good shape physically boosts your ability to learn.
Studies show that after exercise, people pick up new vocabulary 20 times more quickly than before.5
A Swedish study of over a million 18-year-olds showed that fitness does relate to a person's IQ, and further studies show that for nine and 10-year-olds, 20 minutes of exercise before a test significantly improves scores.6,7
Your brain also needs the rest of you to get moving as it pumps the oxygen-rich blood it needs through every capillary.
Handpicked article: Fitness your kids will actually do with you
Make time for bed
There’s a huge performance gap caused by an hour’s difference in sleep in children. A study showed that a slightly sleepy Year 7 pupil will perform in class similar to a Year 5 pupil.8
Teenagers achieving A grades were found to be averaging 15 minutes more sleep than B students, who in turn averaged 15 more minutes than the Cs, and so on, so every 15 minutes counts.
Set up a regular bedtime routine of at least a half-an-hour wind down – think of the 4 Bs: bath, brushing teeth, books, and bed, at around the same time each evening.
Limit after-school activities so bedtime doesn’t end up being pushed back too late. Ban screen time an hour before bed as that pesky blue light disrupts sleep rhythms.9
Handpicked article: How to get a better night’s sleep
Serve brain food on a plate
Yes, it would be amazing if children were ALWAYS eating healthy, as research shows diet makes a big difference in the grades children get.10
They’ll need a balanced diet, of plenty of fresh fruit and veggies and a steady supply of energy, from complex carbohydrates such as wholemeal bread, pasta, porridge and pulses, which take time for your body to break down, so release their glucose slowly and steadily.
Brains also need to be primed with oxygen, so make sure there’s a good supply of iron in their diet.
Find it in green leafy vegetables, especially spinach, dried fruit, fortified cereals, and pulses such as baked beans. Keep them well hydrated too as this affects their attention span.
If they complain that they are feeling low on energy, it could be that their diet is lacking in foods that contain vitamin B1 (thiamine) such as fresh and dried fruit, whole grain bread, peas, eggs and fortified breakfast cereals.
To increase their intake (and your energy levels), you could consider encouraging them to take a vitamin B supplement, as long as it doesn’t contain more than 100mg of thiamine per dose.
You may want to consider getting a vitabiotic supplement, such as Neurozan, for them, which is ideal for increasing brain and cognitive function, especially important during revision period when they need to be on top form.
Don’t skip breakfast!
Children who eat breakfast have longer attention spans and better memory than those who don’t.11
Pick wholegrain cereals and oatmeal, rather than anything packed with sugar.
And while we all know to make sure they have a good breakfast the day of an exam, what you eat the week before a test matters, too.
According to a 2019 study by the University of Leeds, students who didn’t eat breakfast on a regular basis achieved lower GCSE grades than those who did.12
A well-timed treat
Even though they are a regular diet no-no, caffeine and glucose can have a positive effect on cognitive performance.
They’ve been shown to help sustain attention and working memory processes – although some studies do suggest otherwise, so do bear this in mind.13
So if your kids are occasionally allowed to enjoy sweets and fizzy drinks, treat them while they’re studying rather than just mooching about, as it can help with focus.
The power of belief
Simply believing that your child is smarter than others can make a difference.
Studies showed when teachers were told certain children were more intelligent, those students did better — even though they had been randomly selected.
By the end of the school year, 30 per cent of those singled out as ‘spurters’ had gained an average of 22 IQ points, and almost all of them had gained at least 10 IQ points.14
This phenomenon is also known as the ’Pygmalion effect’.15
Handpicked content: University students: how a better diet can improve your results
Consider buying them some vitamins
Lots of research has been conducted on school kids to see whether certain nutrients are beneficial for their academic performance.
For example, one study concluded that a deficiency in iron can negatively impact dopamine transmission, which can then have a knock on effect on their cognitive function.16
Similarly, deficiencies in vitamins E and B, as well as iodine and zinc have been linked with the suppression of concentration and general cognitive abilities.17
The Department of Health recommends all children aged six months to five years are given vitamin supplements containing vitamins A, C and D every day.
Handpicked article: The vitamins children need
The final say
And that’s how to deal with exams stress, from a parent’s perspective. Feeling better equipped to support your kids during exam season?
If you need more information on this, check out our Guide To Nutrition For Children.
Last updated: 2 April 2022