PE teachers can help students find the right balance between their studies and active breaks to boost brain function, reduce tiredness and alleviate stress during their exams
Exam season is here! And everyone - students, parents, and teachers - are all feeling the pressure. Students want to do well. Teachers want students to do well. Parents want their children to do well. And it can be tempting to feel that the most important thing, above and beyond anything else, is to study, study and study some more. Yes, it is important that students study for their exams (as I keep telling my students!), however it's also important to be aware of just how much pressure we are putting students under, how much pressure many of our students are putting themselves under, and how tired, stressed and generally overworked they are feeling.
It is understandable, when so much is seemingly at stake, to feel as though studying should eclipse everything else. However, it's important to remember that students need to take a break from time to time. They need to eat properly, sleep well and, equally importantly, they need to get some form of exercise. You know that feeling when you've been sat at your desk all day and you think you might go crazy if you don't get up and do something, anything, else. Our students feel that way too! I bring this up especially because I regularly hear arguments from parents during exam time that they don't want their son or daughter taking part in extra-curricular sport, in or outside of school, because they have too much work to do.
Recently the former Ireland ladies rugby captain, Fiona Coghlan, spoke about the importance of young people continuing to play sport during exam years. "It really kills me to see parents making their child give up a sport during an exam year," she told the Irish Independent. "They often feel like they will study more if they have no other distractions, which just isn't the case. You can only study so much and making time to exercise and clear your head is essential. Young people need to have outlets in their lives and being active in a sport is one of the best things they can do."
Unfortunately, this pressure from parents does often impact upon what teachers allow students to do in school. I regularly hear from other teachers about their school pulling students out of PE for extra support, or being unable to use students in extra-curricular teams because they have been told by other subject teachers that they need to stay back for additional study or revision sessions. Not only might this take away their only opportunity during the week to get some exercise or do something they enjoy, but it also reinforces the idea that academic accomplishments are prioritised over the health and wellbeing of an individual. Does there have to be such a conflict? Or can we find ways to recognise the value of both?
Now I'm not unreasonable, and I know from first-hand experience that there are some students who would rather spend every waking hour playing sports than read a book or do their homework, and I speak to these students all the time about the importance of balancing their sports participation with their work, making time for their studies and focusing on their exams. But could we as PE teachers be doing more to prevent opportunities for students to be active, healthy and not constantly working or worrying being taken away from them? Most of us are more than happy to meet colleagues and parents halfway, and we will not allow students to throw away their exams because all they want to do is play football. But I would argue that physical activity can be hugely beneficial in reducing stress and helping them to be more productive when they do actually sit down to work. On the flip side, we all teach students who don't enjoy sport, or who will choose to spend hours and hours behind a desk and do nothing else during this period. It's equally important that these students get some form of physical activity. They don't have to join a team or run for miles, but we can still encourage them to shorter activities such as swapping a short drive they usually make in the car (to school, to the shops, to a friend’s house, etc.) for a walk, or downloading a yoga or workout app that they can do in their room during study breaks (apps such as 'Sworkit' are free, easy to use and can be adapted for different levels). Having these active breaks will actually help to combat tiredness and boost brain function, as well as alleviating stress.
In 2013, a study in the British Medical Journal (http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/48/12/973) found that in children, adolescents and young adults short 10 to 40 minutes bursts of exercise led to an immediate boost in concentration and mental focus. In the run up to exams it can be helpful to speak to your students about this, and explain to them, as well as other teachers and parents, why it is so important for them to stay active. Some won’t need much encouragement, but for those who are likely to neglect this part of their life showing them the research and the impact that physical activity can have, and providing them with different opportunities to exercise both during school and at home (in whatever form it may take) could have a tremendously positive impact on their overall wellbeing during this time.
In my own theory classes I often like to break up periods of study with games or activities that involve movement, or incorporate revision into practical activities, such as ‘revision table tennis’. In this game I place revision flashcards on either side of the table. If a student hits the ball onto a card, their opponent must ask them a question related to the topic on the card. If they answer correctly, the card is taken away. The aim is to be the first to have removed all of the cards on the opposite side of the table. This activity not only tests their knowledge but also develops their ability to accurately place a ball in table tennis. And they get to play! There are many other examples out there, and Twitter is a great place to find ideas. Recently @ukPEchat ran a thread about revision ideas for GCSE and there were some great suggestions for active revision games that could be used in any subject. I would encourage my fellow PE teachers to do some research and discover some activities you could use yourself. Even better, create your own and share them with others! I personally love sharing ideas with other teachers, and I strongly believe it helps us all to become better at what we do.
Frustratingly, our profession often has to battle against pre-conceptions, and we seem to be continuously justifying the value and place of PE in the curriculum. This can be difficult at times but remember that if you are challenged you can argue that the need for regular physical activity (especially during exams!) is a theory supported by science, and in this particular case it is not simply about promoting our subject or trying to get students to be better at PE. This is about helping young people to be happier and healthier during one of the most stressful times they may have encountered. I know that's something we all want.
Laura Davies is the head of PE at a British International School in Thailand.
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