If exams are looming, it's time to ease up

25th April 2014 at 01:00
Even the best-behaved student can act up under the stress of the season, so exercise your judgement and adjust your approach

The period before exams can do funny things to students. Take example A. This boy usually pushed the rules to the limit. He was a classic borderline student: capable but not quite willing. My expectations of him were low. However, at the start of the "final push" towards the exam, the penny finally dropped. His attitude to learning, and me, suddenly did a 180-degree turn. He came to lessons on time, completed homework, volunteered to spend lunchtimes doing revision and even apologised for previous indiscretions.

Then take example B. This was a girl who had spent her school career working hard and pushing herself to be the best, but when the exams rolled around she gave up. She was snappy and emotional. She stopped doing homework. The final push seemed to be a push too far.

Although we welcome the transformation of students such as example A, we need to be very careful how we approach those in the category of example B.

In theory, we should play it by the book and punish them as we would at any other time during the school year. However, the run-up to exams is a tricky time. Students find themselves overwhelmed with revision classes, guides and packs. Podcasts, website referrals and past papers seem to be thrown at them from every angle. Quite often they just don't know which way to turn.

This onslaught of pressure and work changes behaviour in a number of ways, so it would be foolish for us - as the teachers partly responsible for those changes - not to adjust the way we tackle it. Here is how I handle common situations:

General disruption

Always acknowledge bad behaviour in whatever guise it appears. But some leeway for minor indiscretions can be appropriate on occasion. Stay firm but be fair and give students who are feeling the strain the benefit of the doubt. Engage in a dialogue with them. Help them to see that what they are doing is unacceptable, and let them known that if their behaviour is linked to stress you can tackle it together.


If you have always been strict on uniform this is not the time to stop. But personally I ease up a bit on untucked shirts and very loose ties. I tend to make a passive comment, such as: "Your shirt seems to have untucked itself again", rather than giving students a stern reprimand. If someone forgets to tuck in their shirt while they're rushing to a revision class, you don't want to come down too hard and make them feel as though you don't appreciate the effort they are making.


Whether the reason for being late is genuine or not, it is probably best to avoid disturbing everyone else by making an example of the offender with a public dressing-down. Leave the reprimand until break time and keep a record of how much lateness they have accumulated. When it gets to, say, 25 minutes, make the student "trade it in" for 25 minutes of lunchtime or after-school revision. Impress on them that every minute they miss they will have to catch up later on.

Failure to hand in work

Arguably, this is the most important part of the year for work to be completed on time because that time is fast running out. However, it is crucial to use your judgement. When students tell you they are finding it hard to stay on top of work and revision, find out exactly what level of work they are contending with and how much revision they are actually doing. Based on this information, give the student advice on time management rather than punishing them, and help them to create structured timetables. If you smell a rat, however, don't let them run through a list of tired excuses. Instead, tackle the issue head-on.

Extreme behaviour

One or two incidents of extreme behaviour always occur in the run-up to exams. Usually these take the form of fighting between students. I adopt the same policy on this as for low-level disruption. Once all the parties are calm, acknowledge what has happened, advise the students involved of its inappropriateness and then engage in dialogue to help them to see why their behaviour is wrong and how it may be linked to stress. These life skills are just as important as their exam results.

There will always be people who advocate making no changes in behaviour policy during the exam period, arguing that consistency is all-important and that at this time more than ever students need to know where the boundaries lie.

However, if we insist on putting students through the enormous stresses of examinations, we have to accept the repercussions. We are already treating them differently in class - pushing them harder, piling on the work, making bleak pronouncements about the consequences of any lack of effort - and behaviour management should not be excluded from those changes.

Katie White is an English teacher at Kingsbridge Community College in Devon

What else?

In this Teachers TV video, an expert gives advice on helping students through their exams.


Student stress is a mental health time bomb, a charity warns.


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