There are certain events that, each year, herald the imminence of summer. Light, bright evenings; the first sighting of a swallow; rhododendrons blooming. And sweaty-palmed teenagers anxiously walking the school halls.
Adults tend to assume that anxiety is inevitable this time of year. But, says Vivian Hill, a practicing psychologist and academic at the UCL Institute of Education, it is not quite so straightforward.
Anxiety can motivate teenagers to study and prepare for exams, Ms. Hill says. But it can also play a negative role: research has shown that higher levels of anxiety among some students was associated with lower performance on tests.
Teachers, she believes, are ideally placed to ensure that pupils are not debilitated by anxiety – or by a lack of it. She offers some tips here:
- Teenagers pick up stress from the adults around them
As a teacher, you may feel under huge pressure at this time of year. Try and keep this from pupils as much as possible.
- Self-awareness is key
What message is your own behavior sending to pupils, either directly or indirectly?
- Stressed parents make for stressed pupils
Help parents to understand that what they think of as supportive encouragement may be experienced by pupils as toxic levels of pressure.
- Remember that some stress is valuable
There are always some pupils who are too laid-back about the approaching exams. Remind them that, if they can motivate themselves to study, then their exams will be behind them and they can move on. If they don’t study, they may find themselves faced with summer school and extra work to make up.
- Reviewing past schoolwork can feel like punishment to pupils
Their lives are on hold for several weeks. Remind parents that this might not be the best time to take the rest of the family on an outing, leaving one child reviewing work at home alone.
- Studying is also an isolating experience
Encourage parents to make the studying teenager feel part of the family: just bringing an occasional drink upstairs or putting an encouraging hand on a shoulder when you pass on the stairs can make a difference.
- ...though not for all pupils
Talk to parents about ways to help their children find a quiet space in which to prepare for exams. If parents are also sacrificing something they enjoy – evening TV, for example – that will also help teenagers feel less alone.
- Don’t forget low-achieving pupils
Endless practice tests can take a toll on self-esteem. Think carefully about the feedback you give low-achieving pupils: even at this late stage, it needs to be constructive, rather than a constant reminder that they are not up to standard.
- After-school study groups can play a dual role
They can focus study, but they can also provide a place where pupils’ levels of anxiety can be managed and controlled, if parents are unable to do this at home.
Consider leading pupils in mindfulness exercises before each exam. These can include breathing activities and thinking activities. Alternatively, start and end review sessions with a period of relaxation.
- ...especially over breakfast
Run a breakfast club before exams, to ensure that pupils arrive to the exam well-fed. These clubs can also incorporate distracting activities, to help pupils relax.
- Don’t forget fun
If you are running a half-term study group, consider including a fun activity – even if it is just watching a film together – at the end of the week. This reminds pupils that there is still a life outside exams.
- It’s good to talk
Provide an opportunity for pupils to come together and exchange helpful study tips. It is important that this does not become a moaning session: it should be about reducing stress, rather than increasing it.
- It’s sometimes good to talk one-to-one
Particularly stressed pupils could benefit from a supportive, one-to-one conversation with a teacher. Often, all it takes to dissipate anxiety is to talk about it to someone else.
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