GCSE results: how to talk to stressed-out students

Teachers who want to support students anxious about their GCSE results must choose their words carefully, says Jo Steer

Teachers offering support to anxious GCSE students should choose their words carefully, says wellbeing expert Jo Steer

Picture the scene. It’s mid-August, on a weekday. You’re gliding through the supermarket car park behind a trolley full of rest, relaxation and bugger all to do with school work.

You didn’t think you could feel this relaxed. You’re wearing flip-flops. At the supermarket!

But your dalliance with serenity is about to be interrupted by a chance encounter with one of your Year 11 students; a lovely, hard-working pupil, whose face tells a story of worry, stress and impending doom.

Like so many of their peers, they’ve spent the summer nursing feelings of depression and anxiety as we get closer to 22 August: GCSE results day.

It’s impossible not to absorb some of those feelings, not to feel for them and to worry with and for them. But it can be hard to express that in a useful way. From my experience, here are some dos and don'ts:

How to support anxious GCSE students 

Don’t tell them not to worry about it.

For one thing, telling someone not to do something, is the surest way to get them to do it (just ask anyone who’s ever quit chocolate for more than a few days.) If it were that easy to just stop worrying, we’d all be doing it.

Do remind them that it’s natural to feel anxious about exam results.

They’ve put a lot of time and work into the process, after all. Results stress can leave students feeling isolated and alone, so it’s useful to remind them that anxiety is a natural and normal by-product of doing anything worth doing.

It’s also helpful to get them to focus on managing the feelings of anxiety – by doing things they enjoy, practising self-care and so on – rather than a result that they can no longer control.

Don’t say that everything will be fine 

However it is intended, this response feels like a brush-off, especially to someone who has perhaps been experiencing some of the more severe side-effects of results worry.

You may well hope that they’ll get the results they want, but you don’t actually know. For many students, hearing “You’ll be fine!” will trigger thoughts like “What if I’m not?” or even, “Oh God, they’re expecting me to be fine – they’re going to be so disappointed!” 

Do remind them that they can’t predict the future

If your student is experiencing intrusive thoughts and mentally rehearsing catastrophe, they may believe this to be a sign of imminent failure. Remind them that it isn’t. 

It’s your brain’s well-meaning, if misguided, way of attempting to soften the blow just in case things don’t work out. Assuming the worst doesn’t mean that the worst is going to happen, but rather that your assumptions need some rethinking.

Don’t suggest that exams don’t matter 

Maybe adulthood has taught you that GCSE results aren’t anywhere near as life-and-death as you once believed. But would you have wanted to hear that at 16? Probably not. Right now, to these kids, this means a whole lot. Don’t belittle their experience.

Do reassure that whatever happens, they’ll handle it

To many students, a “failed” result feels like the end of the world. Help them to regain perspective by considering how they might respond to their worst-case scenario, whether this involves resits or a change of course or college. 

They’ll hopefully never need these options, but just knowing that they have a Plan B (and C and D and E) can take the lid off the mental pressure cooker.

Jo Steer is a teacher and experienced leader of SEND interventions

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