Helping students to handle exam stress

This article first appeared in print and online in SecEd where I'm the resident mental health expert. You can read all of my articles here.


Exam season is on the horizon and we must help students to handle the pressure if they are to excel. Dr Pooky Knightsmith offers some practical ideas for reducing stress and anxiety in the run up to exams

Exam stress is a perfectly normal and, to some extent, healthy thing that all of our pupils will face at some point. In this article, I will explore some practical approaches you can work through with your pupils to help reduce the impact that this stress and anxiety will have on their wellbeing and, of course, their exam performance.

Normalise exam stress and explore the positives

The first thing you can do is to get the conversation started and help your pupils to understand that exam stress and test anxiety is a perfectly normal thing. Talk about what it physically feels like and help them to understand that none of them are alone in feeling this way.

Helping pupils to realise that they are not alone in how they are feeling and that their peers, and many before them, have experienced this too can be powerful.

You can also explore the positives of exam stress. After all, without the course of adrenaline we feel when we walk into the exam room, we would be unlikely to be able to stay so focused for so long. Additionally, the longer-term stress that we feel in the run up to exams can help to motivate us to study. So it’s not all bad.

Questions you could explore with your pupils include:

  • Why do we get stressed?

  • What does it feel like?

  • Are there any benefits?

Consider physical wellbeing

Mental health is underpinned by our physical health and if we want our pupils to have the academic resilience they need to make it through revision and exam season they will need to be looking after their physical health too.

Good regular sleep, a healthy diet and a reasonable amount of exercise can all contribute to our ability to bounce back from daily ups and downs. When these ups and downs are magnified by the pressure of exams, it is even more important we double down on looking after our physical wellbeing, but instead this often falls by the wayside with pupils dropping sleep in favour of study, and giving up time when they might have engaged in team sports or other hobbies in order to make space in their timetable for revision.

Pupils can have tunnel vision when it comes to study and revision and many will revise to the exclusion of all else. Exploring with pupils how to study smarter not longer and helping them to understand that their brain will function better when properly rested can support them to make healthier choices when timetabling their revision.

Questions you could explore with your pupils include:

  • Why is it important to look after our physical wellbeing?

  • What are the pros and cons of studying late into the night?

  • What are the things I could do every day to help keep myself physically well?

  • How can sport/hobbies help us manage stress?

Study skills and academic support

An absolutely key way that we can reduce stress in the run up to exams is to help our pupils to feel in control academically. One of the factors that drives exam stress is either not knowing what to expect or feeling underprepared.

We can’t do our pupils’ revision for them but we can provide them with the information they need to structure their revision, suggest some effective ways of revising and help them to prioritise what to spend their time on, whether that’s exam technique or particular areas of the syllabus. We can also offer our support and input when our pupils are developing their revision timetables.

Helping pupils to understand where their quick wins will be and also discouraging them from spending too much time on areas which they know well (this is a common tendency) can be really helpful.

Think too about the avenues of support that your pupils can access if they need academic support and ensure all pupils know how to access support.

Questions you could explore with your pupils include:

  • How can I revise effectively?

  • What can I expect on the day of the exam?

  • Which areas of the syllabus do I need to focus on?

  • How can I get help if I need it?

Healthy coping strategies

Supporting your pupils to identify a few strategies that they can use when necessary to help them to feel calmer and in control can be an incredibly useful exercise.

Different people will find different things helpful but things like simple breathing techniques, visualising a place where we feel calm and safe, listening to calming music, going for a walk or engaging in a sport or hobby we enjoy can all be great stress-busters.

Encourage your pupils to recognise the value of these activities and to build them into their revision timetable. Down-time and taking time to allow ourselves to reset and become calmer will enable us to study harder and remember more when we do sit down to study.

Questions you could explore with your pupils include:

  • What healthy coping strategies work for you?

  • What do you enjoy doing?

  • Should you build these things into your timetable?

Additional support

For some pupils, their stress and anxiety goes far beyond what is healthy. If you are concerned that a pupil’s stress is having a significant impact on their day-to-day life – and has done so for more than a few days – then either escalate your concerns or sit down with the pupil and explore what support might help.

Some pupils may require a referral to your school counsellor or to specialist services. However, for most pupils, scaffolded support in the run up to exams can keep their stress to within healthy limits; and the skills they learn to help them manage exam stress can be a great asset to them when they face other stressors in the future.

Dr Pooky Knightsmith is a passionate ambassador for mental health, wellbeing and PSHE. Her work is backed up both by a PhD in child and adolescent mental health and her own lived experience of PTSD, anorexia, self-harm, anxiety and depression. To read her previous articles in SecEd, go to You can contact Pooky via

You might also like this video with ideas for reducing exam stress aimed at parents and school staff: