Exams: Supporting your students
A guide for teachers
It’s no secret that exams are a major cause of worry and anxiety each year and while, to a certain extent, this is to be expected, there are steps that can be taken by schools, and the students themselves to look after their emotional wellbeing.
Why is this important?
It is widely understood that positive health and wellbeing – including mental health – contribute to a child’s ability to flourish, thrive and achieve (Public Health England, 2021. Equipping children with the skills to enhance their resilience will help them navigate challenges without compromising performance.
In 2022, one in six children and young people aged seven to sixteen were believed to have a probable mental health disorder, with around two-thirds of those young people receiving regular support from schools. This is a huge increase from one in nine children and young people in 2017 and has happened against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic (NHS Digital 2022).
Support from schools is vital, because 61% of children and young people who have a mental health disorder report feeling unsafe at school, and experience lower levels of enjoyment when learning. Schools can tackle this by ensuring all children and young people are nurtured in a learning environment that promotes positive wellbeing.
A school which nurtures mental health increases the likelihood students will meet or exceed their potential while completing their exams. They are also likely to move into further education or employment with a greater degree of confidence.
How do we do this?
There needs to be a whole-school approach to mental and emotional well-being, from the foundation years right through to post-16 education.
This doesn’t mean talking about exams from nursery, but rather teaching positive coping skills on how to communicate about your feelings and how to manage when you encounter something difficult or upsetting, to build and promote resilience.
Making space to talk about these things not only gives children ‘permission’ to express how they feel, it helps them understand that emotions are experiences common to everyone; this helps counter worries of being ‘different’ or feelings of shame.
Here are some steps that can be taken to foster this approach:
Top tips for supporting students with exam stress
- Start with the staff team! Students are very perceptive and detect when morale is low or their teaching staff are stressed, unhappy, or worried. An emotionally-well staff team is more likely to instill confidence and reassurance in pupils and create a positive environment in which to learn.
- As teachers, you are incredibly busy people but you need to look after yourself and your colleagues by making sure you take regular breaks and only work as much as necessary during school holidays. Rely on the support of your colleagues, and lead by example if you are in a senior position.
- Model what you expect from your students and develop your own resilience.
- Consider the necessity and usefulness of school holiday homework. This is obviously trickier in the run-up to exams but think about whether alternative tasks can be set which allow students plenty of time to rest and recharge and have fun outside of school. Saving creative elements of coursework or encouraging a healthy revision: rest ratio during the holidays will ensure students can perform at their absolute best.
- Be visible. Be a school that acknowledges that things are difficult sometimes and have clear information about what to do. Ensure snow, they’re much more likely to speak out. Create spaces in class and in assemblies to talk about emotions and healthy coping mechanisms.
- Encourage peer support and equip pupils to know how to respond if they are concerned exam pressure is having a negative impact on one of their friends. Young people are more likely to confide in one another in times of stress and being concerned about someone else will be an additional strain if they don’t know where to get support.
Schools are noisy places, yet exams are taken under strict conditions.. Being expected to sit for prolonged periods in total silence, with no external stimulation from others, may cause pupils more stress than is realised. If young people are used to concentrating with a backdrop of noise and movement, they’re unlikely to produce their best work in silence.
It’s obviously not feasible to create an exam environment that’s going to be exactly what every student will find most conducive to concentrating, so the alternative is to teach young people how to manage silence. Being able to cope with stillness and silence will prepare students for the exam hall, minimising any anxieties or unfamiliarity at suddenly being in such a different environment, whilst equipping them with the skills to remain calm.
- In an increasingly digital age, create times and spaces that are quiet and technology free.
- Teach children and young people to manage silence from an early age. This doesn’t have to be through a series of mock exams, but by having quiet times of day when talking and movement are kept to a minimum.
- Introduce mindfulness techniques. Give students the opportunity to be quiet and still and gently talk them through different techniques to enhance their senses and give them a moment to be peaceful. Immediately after the lunch break can be a good time to try this, and you can encourage your students to practice mindfulness at other times, such as bedtime or when they feel worried, or before they start a period of revision. Mindful or calming activities such as the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 technique can teach students how to do it for themselves and is a practical tool if feeling anxious before or during an exam. 5 things you can see, 4 you can touch, 3 you can hear, 2 you can smell, and 1 you can taste.
By being comfortable in silence and aware of their breathing, pupils will have an inbuilt coping strategy to employ in the quiet of the exam hall. There are lots of mindfulness resources and suggestions available online.
- Be positive about the experience of exams – if students can see how much you may be worried about them, they’re going to follow suit.
- Be transparent about what will happen. Ensure each student knows where they’ll be completing their exams and under what conditions. Make sure they know that the school or college may have visitors to see how the exams are being run, as well as external invigilators, so as not to be concerned if there are people in the room they don’t know.
- Reinforce how proud you are of their efforts – not every student will attain the grades you hope they will, but it’s important to acknowledge their effort and determination, nonetheless.
- Discuss coping strategies – what’s a good thing to do if they feel anxious or worried? Why can stress be a good thing and how can we learn from it? Reinforce that anxiety is largely normal, and not something necessarily to be afraid of.
- News headlines can sometimes be less than helpful. In the past, the media have talked about grade inflation, exams being too easy, and exam paper leaks, not to mention the impact of students missing exams entirely during the Covid-19 pandemic, and in most years you can expect some unhelpful reporting around exam season at some point. Students see and hear what’s in the news, so create time and space to address and discuss issues as they come up.
- Invite parents and carers to an information evening, encourage as many people to attend as possible, and provide written information. Explain the strategies the school is putting in place to help students through the exams and encourage them to do the same. Ensure parents are issued with full details of the exam schedule so they can support their child to be organised and prepared when the time comes.
- Share supporting information with parents and carers such as our guide about Exams: Supporting your Child.
- Tell the students to keep on top of their schedule and be prepared, but also to rest and have fun where possible. Last minute panicked revision will be less effective than a good night’s sleep or going for a walk with friends.
- Consider offering a free breakfast club. Not only does this ensure that all students have had a decent amount to eat ahead of each exam, it will also enable you to keep in touch with them and help deal with any worries in a more informal setting. Play music, laugh, provide toast and set the mood for the day.
- Suspend assemblies for exam-taking students. They’re unlikely to add anything of real significance, and students will just see them as something else to concentrate on.
- Offer praise and encouragement at every opportunity – and remind them that exams are just for a season. Hopefully you can help them to see this as a personal challenge or adventure!
- Consider sending written confirmation from the headteacher congratulating the students on completing their exams.
- When the time comes, help them understand the results while they weigh up their options for what comes next. Ensure students know who to contact and how if they have concerns or questions about their results Have people available on results day to support those who may be disappointed or have questions.
- Organise something fun. Lots of schools and colleges now host a prom for those moving on – it doesn’t have to be formal or extravagant, but providing a safe, fun space for students to be together is a nice way to end the exam or the school year well.
When should we worry about a pupil, and what should we do?
It would be unnatural for exams not to induce a certain degree of stress or anxiety. Rather than be concerned about this, it can be seen as an opportunity to instill resilience and equip young people with coping skills. There is, of course, a tipping point. Exams should not:
- Affect appetite or ability to sleep to the extent that their health suffers.
- Cause significant changes to a student’s personality or affect their relationships, especially if they are unable to recognise it is happening.
- Induce panic or tears.
- Lead to disengagement from lessons or become a reason to avoid attending school.
- Compel students to work excessively.
If any of the above are evident, then the prospect of undertaking exams may be causing an excessive degree of emotional distress, and the student in question will benefit from some intervention.
Again, this isn’t about removing the stressor, but rather equipping them to cope with the situation.
Steps to take
- Talk to the family. It is important to get a snapshot of what else might be happening at home that you may not be aware of.
- Spend time with the student to understand fully what aspect of taking exams concerns them most. Is it the prospect of failure? Is it the environment? Is it the unknown of the exam papers? Identify the fear and take steps from there. Reassure them that feeling some stress and anxiety is normal and can be managed.
- Consider what additional support the student might benefit from during their exams. This doesn’t have to mean formal or specialised input, just having a familiar adult to speak to before or after each exam, or a safe space to retreat to within school or college.
- Follow up. For most students, signs and symptoms of stress or anxiety may disappear as soon as the exams are over, but if this isn’t the case, further intervention may be required. It’s at this point that young people may slip through the net, especially if they are moving on to college or university, so it’s vital someone checks in and concerns are passed on as appropriate.
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