Anxiety around exams is nothing new, but, lately, I find that more and more students are coming to me because they are struggling to manage the stress triggered by GCSEs.
I am not alone in noticing this increase. In 2017, the phone counselling service Childline revealed that the number of calls they received about exam stress had risen by 11 per cent in two years. And a recent survey by Barnardo’s found that almost half of 12- to 16-year-olds feel sad and anxious on a weekly basis, with their biggest worries being about school and their futures.
So, as the exam period approaches, what can schools do to help?
1. Take preventative action
Don’t wait until students are stressed out and not coping before embedding strategies for planning revision and combatting stress.
For example, try building mindfulness strategies into lessons or assemblies. The Mindfulness in Schools Project has more information about these techniques. Whatever your personal views on mindfulness, devoting some time to it will at the very least send the message to students that wellbeing is important.
For other preventative measures you can take, the DfE research report Supporting Mental Health in Schools and Colleges has case studies and recommendations to help.
2. Promote extracurricular interests
During the exam period, it is important to make students aware that they should not be revising 24/7. Encourage them to pursue hobbies they enjoy and adopt a culture of valuing the arts. If you hear comments like “Art isn’t useful for your career”, challenge these attitudes and encourage students to think about the benefits to individuals and to society as a whole.
3. Encourage a ‘growth mindset’
Although Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset has its critics, I believe that the basic principles (that our abilities are not fixed, but can be developed through study and hard work) are very relevant to exam stress and motivation. If students have a fixed mindset and believe that they are “bad at maths” for example, you can see how they might get a mental block when it comes to maths revision. However, if students feel it is worth their time working on it, revision becomes more purposeful and much less frustrating.
4. Help students to get excited about their future
If students are able to see exam stress as short-lived and as a stepping-stone to getting where they want to go, they are more likely to be able to put any feelings of anxiety into perspective. A positive focus relating to their career goals or interests is key in enabling students to positively frame their exam stress.
A 2014 Harvard Business School study also found that replacing the word “anxious” with “excited” improved performance (Brooks, 2014). So, rather than relaying the message that students need to “calm down”, work to reposition anxiety as a positive form of anticipation.
5. Avoid catastrophizing in whole-school messages
Although a minority of students might be motivated by messages such as “How you perform in your exams will affect the rest of your life”, this is catastrophising. It can paralyse hard-working students and stop others from coming forward when they need help.
Avoid this and instead focus on building resilience, and provide information and resources supporting mental health, such as online counselling support services.
6. Open a dialogue with parents
Involve families and parents by providing information about wellbeing, including the importance of eating well, sleeping well and exercise – and by sending home the message that while exams matter, they are never worth young people risking their health over.
Rosie Boparai is teacher of maths and physics at St Bede’s Inter-Church School, Cambridge. She is also editor of the Journal of Physics Education