We spend so much time focusing on the outcome of examinations and students’ results, it’s easy to forget about the impact this is having on their mental health.
In this country, 80% of young people believe that exam pressure has significantly impacted on their mental health. When you consider that three quarters of long-term mental health issues start in childhood, that’s indicative of a huge problem facing today’s youth.
Recent and ongoing reforms to GCSE examinations are compounding the issue, and many pupils feel they are left in limbo by the confusion this has caused. Unfortunately, it looks like the situation will get worse in the coming years as reform continues to roll out.
Modern-day examinations are incredibly results-oriented, and these results will have a major impact on the rest of their lives – that’s a tremendous amount of pressure to pile on young minds.
Now more than ever, supporting students through this stressful time is about more than just cramming their head full of knowledge. Students need emotional and mental health support; here’s how teachers can help to provide it.
Foster Open Dialogue
Don’t be afraid to talk openly with students about stress and mental health issues. This helps you to identify students who are struggling and to open one-to-one dialogue with those who really need it.
More needs to be done to normalise the concept of stress in classrooms, and to explain that, during difficult times, everyone experiences elevated levels of stress sometimes – this doesn’t make you weak, and stress doesn’t have to crush you.
You can use your own anecdotes to explain this, such as your own experiences of studying for and sitting examinations. This has the added benefit of making you more relatable to your students.
There’s also something to be earned from discussing stress and coping techniques with your colleagues. Seek advice from co-workers, particularly those senior to you – they’ve already had to deal with the same issues. You can encourage students to do the same with their peers. However, you should be careful to frame this in a way that doesn’t involve students comparing themselves with their fellows and drawing comparisons.
Create a Calm Environment
Students will need a safe space they feel they can retreat to. Control the tone and volume of your voice and adjust the lighting to create a relaxed atmosphere. You don’t need to go overboard on this; just bear in mind that your students have already done the main brunt of the hard work, and now they need to be in the right frame of mind to make best use of the knowledge and skills they’ve learned.
Many teachers bring in treats for their classes during exam season. Cheap confectionary, like digestive biscuits, can make a big difference. It’s a relatively inexpensive, easy gesture, but it lets students know that you’re there for them and can help to transform your classroom into a safe space.
Adopt Their Perspective
Some pupils might seem distant, uncooperative, and, in extreme cases, even stop coming to lessons. It’s difficult, but try to be sympathetic of the stress they’re going through – sometimes, we can forget how difficult it is to be a teenager. It’s better to talk about the cause of the problem than to jump straight into punishing them for poor behaviour.
If this is a persistent problem, it might be a good idea to contact the parents.
Emphasise the benefits of exercise – just a 20-minute brisk walk each day can have a dramatic effect on our stress levels. Sleep has a dramatic effect on your ability to retain and form new memories, which is crucial in the examination hall.
Tired students may try to prop themselves up with caffeine. This only helps in the short term, and isn’t a solution to being tired or stressed. The best way to stay alert during exam season is to drink plenty of water, so encourage students to keep a bottle handy.
We’re all guilty of overusing social media. Although it can offer a welcome escape and could be a stress relief in itself in small doses, social media pressure is one of the greatest stressors nowadays, especially for teenagers. The “always online” nature of today’s smartphones and communication technology can be a big drain on our mental energy.
Try to espouse the benefits of clocking out of social media for a couple of weeks and disabling their notifications. When students log back in after the exam season, their accounts will still be there waiting for them.
Offer to support students with planning their revision timetables. If you have customised school planners, consider including revision timetable pages in next year’s proof to provide a whole-school revision strategy. If you’re not sure where to start, we can help you to quickly set this up.
Many schools also add pages of exam techniques, stress relief techniques, and mental health information and support to their student planners. If you’re considering doing the same, you can look these up in our online library of page ideas.
In the Exam
If you haven’t gone over exam strategy with your classes, now may be the time to do so.
Remind students to keep control their breathing. If they’re hyperventilating, they may need to take a moment to compose themselves – examinations don’t need to be rushed.
Teach them to plan ahead for longer questions and essays. Taking 15 minutes to properly read through the questions and plot out their main points could make the difference of an entire grade boundary.
After the exam
Now it’s time to disengage from the subject of the exams entirely. If your students still have classes with you, try to steer them away from discussing the exam questions and the exam itself – dwelling on it won’t help them now.
Instead, concentrate on the next steps they need to take. Do they still have more examinations or coursework to complete? The inability to influence what’s happening and a sense of lack of agency are great stressors; by focusing on things they can directly influence, your students can maintain a sense of control.