young girl sitting an exam

Supporting grieving children and young people through exams

Exams can often be a difficult time for most students when people can feel under pressure to perform and to give of their best. This can sometimes feel additionally difficult for students who are grieving, who may find it hard to think clearly, take information in, access memory recall, concentrate and focus, and see the value in doing exams, when their entire world has been turned upside down by losing someone, when their emotions are heightened, when day to day life and things like sleep can already feel a struggle. 

Not all young people struggle with exams when grieving though. Grief doesn’t look the same for everyone. Some bereaved young people are highly motivated and focussed on making plans for their future, and sitting exams offers them some distraction from their grief. 

It’s normal to feel overwhelmed, anxious, and restless at stressful times like exams, when changes may be up ahead, as young people can relate these feelings with their past emotions from the time of the bereavement. Grief feelings can return during important life events and changes. The bereavement doesn’t have to be recent for grief to affect the student in their exams.

Exams are also a time when existing school/college routines change. Maintaining routines can help a grieving student to feel safe and that despite the pain of their loss, reassure them that aspects of their life is still predictable and familiar. Without the normal school/college routine, life can start to feel unsettled again and this can bring on feelings of unease and fear. 

Students who are grieving may be seeking distractions to help themselves cope with painful thoughts, feelings and emotions, as part of their grief, and the prospect of sitting in an exam hall, in silence for a few hours, surrounded by other students, may cause them to feel exposed and worry about what others will think of them and how they will get through the exams if they start to cry or if their mind goes blank. 

They may also feel additional responsibility to achieve well for their family and/or the person who has died and want to make them proud. 

How can an adult support a grieving young person?

Don’t make assumptions about a young person’s experiences. Have a conversation with the young person to find out how they feel and what support they want from you and/or others. Ask each individual grieving student: 

  • How do you feel about the exams?
  • Do you have any worries about them?
  • If you do, what might help?


If the student identifies fears and/or worries but doesn’t identify anything that could help, offer suggestions “can I suggest….? (grounding techniques), how do you feel about giving this a go?” 

Talk to the student before the exams to ask how they would like you to support them. This could include getting them some tasty snacks to enjoy whilst revising, practical and emotional support. 


Short bitesize revision sessions of up to 20 minutes, followed by a 10-minute break, will be more effective in aiding memory retention than solid revision for hours at a time. It is important to give the brain time to process information and not to overwhelm it, otherwise this is more likely to cause the student to feel frustrated and disheartened. 

Help the student to identify things that calm and relax them, things that they enjoy and experience joy, purpose and satisfaction doing, and things that help them to feel safe, which they can do before the exams, between exams, or as they get ready to go to sleep. These don’t have to be big things, often it’s the ordinary things that can be most helpful. Consider trying to involve as many of your 5 senses as you can- things that they can look at, touch/hold, taste, smell, and listen to, which they identify as bringing them a sense of calmness, feel good and comforting. 

Show interest in the student and their wellbeing and interests generally, don’t just focus conversations on their exam revision/preparation and performance. Recognise that whilst exams are a part of their life, their self-worth, identify and value go way beyond this experience. 

Sometime before the exams, support the student to try using different grounding techniques, to see which ones they prefer and help them most to calm and focus, such as visualisation of ‘my happy place’ which can be used before, during or after an exam, breathing exercises, and affirmations to name but a few. It will be easier for the student to benefit from these if they have practised them before the exams, and if they can view them as more generally as life skills. 

Encourage the student to see the value of self-care

Help the student to plan treats or things that they can look forward to after each exam, between exams, and after the whole exam experience. 

Help the student to know what options they have and how they can be supported if…. happens (If my mind goes blank/ I start to cry….), then I can…. (…) So that they know they have choice. 

When sitting the exams

For some grieving students it is very important to them to feel connected to the person who has died whilst they are sitting an exam, for example, wearing a piece of jewellery that either belonged to the person who died, or has their ashes in, or was given to them by the person who has died. Some grieving young people may want to 

have something small in their bag or pocket that connects them to the person who has died- having this physically with them, can help to reassure and comfort them. 

If the student doesn’t feel that one exam went well, listen, accept, and validate their feelings. Encourage them to see each exam as a separate opportunity and to give each one a go. If one exam doesn’t go well at the start of the exam timetable, this doesn’t mean that all exams will go the same way. 

Offer reassurance to students who need it, explaining that there is the option for re-sits. 

If a student isn’t motivated to do exams, and does not appear to care about them, don’t tell them off or punish them. Recognise that everyone’s motivation and drive for exams will differ, and that it’s understandable that a grieving student can lose their motivation and can’t see the value in sitting exams when the worst thing has happened to them. 

Coral scribble line

Things for education staff to consider with the student

If the student is able to have additional time to complete their exams, speak to them about putting that in place for them. If the student might get distracted during the exam thinking about the person who has died and need time to re-focus on the exam, the additional time could help them a lot.

If the student is able to sit their exam in a different room or on their own, this may help them to feel less exposed and perhaps help them to concentrate.

Where needed and wanted by the student, offer adaptations to support the student. Ask them how they want to manage their grief in terms of their exams, open the conversation instead of ignoring it and expecting the typical exam to suit their individual needs.

Coral scribble line

You might also like

Music in my grief

Talk Grief

Our new website youth-led website, Talk Grief provides grief support of young people (13-25), giving them access to on-demand services, articles, personal stories and video content – all aimed towards young people! It’s a fantastic tool that can give additional support to young people

Coping with Mother's Day: Two girls sat side by side

How to support a teenager who is grieving

When a teenager experiences the death of someone close to them, their emotions and ability to cope can feel so much more difficult and intensified for the young person and those supporting them. We have some advice on how to talk to a teenager about a death.