The role of pressure and stress in the 11 Plus Exam

WARNING- We have written this to be as impactful as possible to ensure the point comes across. Parents of course want the absolute best for their children but sometimes unfortunately the preparation is just too pressured to be effective. Sometimes families only find out on the day when things go wrong. We hope this helps you think about if too much pressure is being applied.

The negative effects of too pressurised a preparation for 11 Plus Exams

Many parents do not fully understand quite how damaging putting too much pressure on a child can be. The research results should speak for themselves:

– Speed of thought drops markedly sometimes by up to 25%.

– Accuracy levels in mental maths fall by more than 10%.

– Verbal Reasoning ability (principally the recall of vocabulary) drops by up to 30%.

Let’s put in this perspective. At some grammar schools (particularly in and around London) there may be up to 20 times the number of children applying than there are places…. So in some cases 120 places and 2,400 applicants. Looking at those applicants the vast majority will be bright and they will have received a great deal of help and preparation. In an unpressurised, but still timed, environment you might find over 50% of them are capable of getting over the eventual cut off score BUT for some of these children the sheer pressure they have been put under means they cannot perform on the day.

Some parents feel that their children need to work extremely hard, they feel they need to know that they are trying for a goal which is very hard to reach and that this will somehow help them do better. The sad fact is that by putting them under too much pressure some Parents will be unknowingly consigning their children to fail before they have even started.  Too much pressure = the absolute certainty of failure in the 11 Plus, those are the facts.

There is a new survey that shows that within those families whose children have not managed to get a place, the common feeling is  that they had an just had unbelievably bad day and scored 20% below the levels achieved at mocks or at home. Actually the children did have a bad a day but normally the cause- TOO MUCH PRESSURE – goes unrecognised. It is quite normal to find children who manage 85% + or 95%+ at home not getting through because on the day all the pressure that they have been feeling comes out and they freeze.


How to identify if too much pressure is being applied

Some families view sheer hard work and volume of work as the way to be successful.

It might work for adults to a degree but all the research and the experience of educators indicates that children simply cannot be driven too hard or they will fail due to the pressure. Parents might persuade themselves that their children are coping well with the pressure but often deep down they are not (and it will all come out on the day).

Feeling the need to continually measure progress by doing test after test.

Children acquire knowledge and skills by learning, not by doing tests. Tests should only be used to help develop accuracy and speed, they are not teaching tools. If a child is scoring 80% on tests due to a lack of knowledge then they will only improve if they are taught the skills they need, they won’t improve one little bit just by doing another test.

Children thinking their parents are married to 11 Plus success.

If children feel their parents are absolutely married to success at the 11+ and they feel they will be letting their Parents down if they do not succeed this can be an indicator of too much pressure. These children will, in many cases, fail because they will, to a degree, freeze on the day, the fear of failure will get to them.

Children do not know what will happen if they do not succeed.

They will feel a huge amount of pressure.  Many children feel the world will stop turning if they don’t get in, this presents a situation which is much too pressured and causes stress.

Conversations continually revolve around the 11 Plus at home and the child is given no space.

More often than not they will under-perform on the day due to freezing as a result of the pressure they feel under.

Parents who believe that telling children ‘not to worry’ will help.

When showing some or all of the above behaviours, a few words of comfort at the end wont help. The pressure built up over months of preparation and focus cannot be smoothed away in that way.

We have seen countless children whose chances have been severely limited because they feel under too much pressure and have not performed on the day. It is something many parents are not aware of and is most common amongst parents who simply believe simply working very hard will get you through (more often than not it is counter- productive).

It is OK to work hard, it is OK to focus on a goal but any programme must be delivered so that children do not feel under too much pressure. The negative effects of too much pressure are so debilitating that in some cases children would have done better without any preparation at all !

How to reduce pressure

It is of course possible to cover the ground in an unpressured way and here are some tips to help you understand how:

Try not to get caught up with school gate chatter.

There will always be parents who think they know it all or are being boastful about their children. It is better not to get involved.

Do not set success at the 11 Plus exam on a pedestal.

In some cases parents have difficult choices (they have either a good grammar school or a difficult comprehensive school) but it is important not to set the Grammar School place on a pedestal. If children feel like the world will stop turning if they don’t pass then that is too much pressure.

Starting early but slowly and gently is the best way to prepare.

Remember that lots of children are not successful because of a lack of a wide vocabulary. Starting early with reading really helps and is a very low pressure activity.

Remembering that while children should work hard this can also be done in a fun way with a smile.

If work is made to be too serious or dry the pressure mounts.

Parents who drive their children beyond the syllabus being tested set their children up to fail.

It is much better to have a deeper understanding of the syllabus and focus on delivering accurate work. Parents who boast about their child doing year 7 or 8 work or even GCSE questions tend to be setting up their children to fail. The extra knowledge they have learnt means they may not be able to work accurately with simpler questions or be able to work quickly enough. We have seen lots of cases where Parents are surprised when their child who is doing year 7 or 8 Maths work has failed to get a place but a child who is working within the syllabus has succeeded. Going beyond what they will be tested on is NEVER right.

Children deliver their best work when they are rested, happy and confident.

Working very hard at the last minute works against every one of these states. Last minute cramming adds undue pressure.

Overdoing assessment papers is counter-productive.

Children improve their scores by improving their knowledge, their ability to work quickly and their ability to work accurately. All too often Parents who believe in hard work and force feed their children paper after paper after paper are actually damaging their children’s prospects, not helping them.

In some cases where English is not the first language at home parents focus too much on Maths and Non-Verbal .

It is never the case in a competitive entry that very good Maths and Non-Verbal scores will cover up weakness in English or Verbal Reasoning. Most 11 Plus exams are weighted so that the Verbal/English side carries more weight in the final assessment. Putting so much pressure on the Maths /Non-Verbal side inevitably leads to too much pressure being applied.


Having operated in the 11 Plus for over twenty years as Tutors and Teachers we know that there will be parents who read this and still think the secret of success is very hard work, undertaken very seriously and combined with an overdose of practice papers and very high expectations… sadly the pressure their children feel under almost inevitably means that in the tough ultra- competitive entries their children may have failed before they even sit the test. Too much pressure means a child’s ability to do the simple things (mental maths, recall vocabulary, work accurately, work quickly reduces by a large amount –the research shows 10% or more).

We all know from our experience of life that pressure can make people freeze and it really does have a similar effect on children. Their accuracy drops , their speed drops and their verbal ability drops and these are all crucial to doing  well. No amount of knowledge or ability can overcome the negative effects of feeling under too much pressure.

We know that this piece has been written with a very strong tone but we wanted to do that to emphasise the importance of ensuring children enter these tests in a happy, confident and relaxed way. A few nerves are natural and will help but too much pressure is always counter-productive.

Believe it or not in many tough  11 Plus entries some children will be taken to such extremes that they are physically sick or wet themselves, many more may not be driven to those lengths but will be under so much pressure that succeeding is a near impossibility.

Be careful that you don’t get caught out putting on too much pressure. Children can work hard in a fun way, remain happy and develop confidence. That is the best way to prepare.


Identifying if you have the traits that might lead to too much pressure being applied

1/ Feeling a sense of pride that your child is working on topics which are years ahead of the syllabus – it is not uncommon to find parents boasting of children doing year 7 or 8 work, or even GCSE level work.

(It is absolutely and totally pointless getting a child to overdevelop their skills. Time would be better spent working on weaker areas or on consolidation or on speed or on accuracy or just on relaxation- doing nothing is better than going way beyond the syllabus)

2/ Do you constantly do assessment tests and find yourself judging if your child has improved by what scores they get. Assessment or 11 Plus Practice tests should be reserved for the end of the programme. Testing a child on things they have not yet covered is absolutely and totally pointless.