Dealing With Exam Stress

Experts share survival strategies to help the kids (and you) cope better BY SANDHYA MAHADEVAN

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Experts share survival strategies to help the kids (and you) cope better BY SANDHYA MAHADEVAN

I’s that time of the year again, when exams come around and everyone in the family gets highly strung and stressed out. For the children, these can manifest in the form of constant fatigue, forgetfulness, mood swings, and even physically as stomach cramps and tension headaches.

The stress cannot be fully avoided, but you can help manage the levels by ensuring your children get the right nutrition and also by making certain lifestyle changes, say nutritionist Pooja Vig and health coach Bonnie Rogers, both certified in functional medicine from The Nutrition Clinic.


Allowing for enough rest and down time is as crucial as revision time, says Bonnie. “Sleep is crucial and I often see so many children not getting enough, especially during exam time,” she says. And when they do get some shut-eye, they find it hard to “stay asleep”.

“Sleep is crucial for focus! It’s easy for children to get caught up and feel like they don’t have the time to have a break, but as parents this should be your role to ensure they are getting enough balance when it comes to sleep and restoration,” says Bonnie.

It is recommended that children get eight to 10 hours of uninterrupted quality rest. Bonnie suggests developing a sleep ritual that parents can put to practice an hour before bedtime to ensure their child gets quality sleep time. Get them to stop studying an hour before bed, she advises. You can try drawing a hot bath or warm shower. Then ensure their room is like a cave: Cool, dark (with no blinking lights from alarm clocks and other electronic items) and quiet.

Bonnie adds, “Keep them away from the television or smartphone devices, as the blue light emitted by them disrupts melatonin, a key hormone for sleep.”


There are a lot of studies showing that students who practise mindfulness or meditation perform better than students who don’t. A popular app amongst teens is Insight Timer, which provides guided breath work and meditations.

For younger children, a programme like Heart Math can help build a visual awareness to mindfulness. Take some time to explore different entry points together with your child, to discover what connects with her.

One of the simplest methods to des-tress, according to Bonnie, is to build a snowglobe simply by keeping a glass jar filled with glitter and water. During breaks, shake it up and ask your child to watch and focus on the falling glitter as they settle. This is a great starting point into mindfulness.

Think of this as training for life – it goes beyond exam time, and having the ability to control our emotions is a skill most of us as adults are still learning. It’s a wonderful gift to your child.


Experts agree that the brain needs nourishment not just externally, but from the inside as well. “Studies after studies have shown that what goes onto a child’s plate can affect her attention span, concentration, mood, problem-solving abilites and coordination,” explains Pooja.



This includes a daily intake of omega-3 fats, which have been proven to improve mental performance, boost reaction times and lower fatigue levels, says Pooja. “The human brain is made up largely of fat and these essential fats are found in salmon, sardine and flax seeds. Fussy eaters may benefit from Omega-3 supplements designed specifically for kids.”


Think about “eating a rainbow or brightly coloured fruits and vegetables”, says Pooja. These include blueberries, red cabbage, carrots, pumpkin and greens. These contain flavonoids or plant-based nutrients, which give superfoods their status, and they help the brain. She adds, “A 2015 study showed that when school kids consumed 1.5 cups of blueberries (in this study this was given in the form of juice) they did better on tests that required recalling of words and tasks.”


“In some cases, children will also benefit from replacing refined carbohydrates like white rice and white bread for more complex carbs like brown rice or quinoa,” says Pooja. She also recommends slow-releasing sugars in the form of fruit, whole-grains and root vegetables such as sweet potatoes.


White sugar or processed sugary food. Those with artificial colourings, dyes and chemicals can directly trigger restlessness and hyperactivity in some cases.

TIP: Is your primary or secondary school child experiencing anxiety and disturbed moods? Assessments have revealed that in many cases this is due to an imbalance in their stress and sleep hormones, says nutritionist Pooja Vig. “This can lead to overall inflammation in the body, which can affect the digestive system, immune system and overall well-being. These kids tend to benefit from cleaning up their diet and taking foods rich in omega-3 fats, B-vitamins and minerals such as zinc and magnesium.”


Snacks should be balanced: Think nuts or seeds, fruit, vegetable sticks, popcorn, chicken or mince patties, says health coach Bonnie Rogers. “If your child is snacking on snack bars, sweets and chips – this is a treat and not a daily snack – when it comes to study time, it will keep his energy and focus dipping and diving.” Help your child to identify if she is hungry or just craving sugar. Bonnie says if they decline your offer for a savoury meal, then their inclination towards a sweet treat is more a craving for sugar than hunger.

Try making your own snacks. These are easy to make, nutritious and nourishing:

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200 g pitted dates • 1 cup desiccated coconut • ⅓ cup gluten-free oats • 1½ tbsps cacao powder

Blend all ingredients until smooth. Roll into small balls, leave uncoated or roll in some desiccated coconut (younger children can help roll the date balls as a welcome distraction). Refrigerate in an airtight container or freeze. Recipe makes about 25 date balls.

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1 avocado • 1 bunch kale • 2 tbsps yoghurt • 1 lime • Olive oil • Salt and pepper, to taste

GUACAMOLE Blend or mash the avocado, yoghurt, seasoning and lime until smooth. Use as a dip for kale chips or veggie sticks.

KALE CHIPS Preheat oven to 100 C. Wash and dry kale, tear into small pieces and discard any large stems. Add to mixing bowl and drizzle with oil, add salt and pepper. Make sure all the leaves are coated. Place the kale on baking sheet and bake for 20 mins – keep checking to ensure it’s not burning and lightly toss for an even bake. Remove from oven when crispy and cool. Store in an airtight container for 1 to 2 days.