Exam Stress, Anxiety and Mental Health: Why Schools Have to Take a Different Approach.

As we near the end of another exam season and tired teenagers (and teachers) get ready for a well-earned rest, we are continually bombarded with media stories of a “child mental health crisis”, supposedly generated by the number of exams students now have to take and the sheer volume of things they have to learn, only to be further exacerbated by the amount of pressure they are put under by parents and teachers.

Schools are constantly criticized on social media regarding this issue. A couple of weeks ago I read about a headteacher in a primary school who had told his Y2 students that the SATS they were about to take were the most important things they would ever do and that their futures depended on their performance in these tests. I hope this is an urban myth, and I hope that if it is true then the headteacher involved is ashamed of themselves. My son is in Y2 and has just taken his SATS and, although he knew he was doing them, he seemed to be under no pressure or stress to perform. This is how it should be.

Schools and teachers have a collective moral responsibility to actively tackle and avoid causing stress and anxiety among pupils. These types of problems are less likely to be related to intrinsic mental conditions that are hard-wired into the brain from birth or during early development and far more likely to be triggered by environmental conditions, for example social and cultural conventions and peer pressure, things which as schools we have some control over.

A frequent culprit that gets blamed for this stress and anxiety is social media. Constant access to these platforms exposes teenagers to an inexorable torrent of peer pressure which often becomes bullying. The crowd mentality that predominates in the online world requires a scapegoat and, as social circles and hierarchies constantly shift and rearrange themselves, almost every teenager will end up being that scapegoat at some point; when this becomes concentrated and repeated it can push students over the edge and into the realms of self-harming and other negative and destructive behaviours. Clearly schools have to intervene to alleviate this mob mentality and to teach students to be polite and kind at all times, regardless of who they are dealing with, and this is usually addressed through assemblies, form time and PSHE programmes, as well as everyday modelling of positive social behaviour by conscientious teachers.

A key area where schools can make a massive difference – in my opinion – is around exams and exam preparation. The way that teachers pass messages about exams to students and the signals we give are hugely influential in shaping students’ perceptions of exams and therefore the stress and anxiety that can be associated with these. It’s paramount that as professionals we don’t pass undue pressure to get grades on to students; these pressures are part of the job for teachers and we need to find strategies to deal with them accordingly. Students need to know that if they have worked hard and done their best then they have nothing to be worried about. The idea that exam failure signals The End of Days for students is a cruel misrepresentation of the truth; yes, the better grades students get the more money they are likely to earn, but this doesn’t automatically mean that they will be happier adults.

There’s a lot to be said for the idea that a person makes and creates their own happiness: students need to be taught and trained how to achieve this. A lot of it comes down to keeping things in perspective; a fall-out with a friend can appear to be the most important thing in the world to an adolescent, but in the big scheme of things it won’t even figure in what they remember as they get older. Helping students to see things in perspective can limit the impact of what they believe are monumental events that can affect their mental health.

One way I try to positively influence the mental health of my students is by thinking carefully about how I speak to them in groups. I constantly tell my Y11s that exams are a challenge to be risen to, not an event to be dreaded. They are a final performance that help colleges and employers to make decisions about candidates, but they are not the whole story. Students should enjoy their education simply because what we are teaching them is endlessly fascinating and engaging – we need to pass this passion and fascination on to our students and this doesn’t need to be marred by a dread of the “terminal” exam (even the language has connotations of disease and death!). Teach the students to anticipate the opportunity to show off how great their knowledge and understanding of the subject is, not to live in fear and dread of the final performance.

A colleague recently retweeted a post from a teenager about how her RS teacher had told the class that they wouldn’t be able to cover all the course before the exam and that she was stressed and worried because none of the students would achieve their targets. To me this is wholly unprofessional and inexcusable behaviour from somebody in a position of trust and authority. Doesn’t this simply demonstrate a lack of curriculum planning and poor teaching rather than anything inherently wrong with the new RS GCSE? My students are expected to be calm and realistic about exams. They’re well prepared and the vast majority of them work hard; they know they are doing a good job and that we’re all in it together, pulling in the same direction, sharing ideas and celebrating our achievements, not being ritually berated every time I see them because I think they’re going to fail.

A couple of weeks before the exams started this year I delivered an assembly to Y11. Rather than the usual pre-exam focus of exam and revision strategy, Growth Mindset and the countdown to the first exam, I focused on health and wellbeing. So much of our mental healthiness comes down to keeping things in perspective, the things we do in our spare time, the food we eat and the amount of sleep we get. I focused on the importance of viewing leisure time as sacred and using it to get out and about. I showed them some pictures of my kids at the beach chasing the dogs and up to their shoulders in a snow drift. I reinforced the importance of getting 8-10 hours of sleep each night and of limiting screen time. It was great that after that assembly I was constantly having conversations with Y11 – initiated by them – both in the classroom and the corridor, about the number of hours they’d slept, what time they’d gone to bed and got up, what exercise they’d done, how they’d avoided caffeine and energy drinks etc. etc.

Another issue that adds to the problem is the fact that everything has to be medicalised now – every type of behaviour is a “disease” or a “condition”. Part of this is the legacy of the self-esteem movement; everyone should be loud and proud about who they are and if they aren’t then there must be a diagnosis pending. Only this week The Telegraph carried a story about the first child to diagnosed with internet addiction. This is just plain daft. I expect the child just needs to have their screen time cut down and find a hobby. By medicalising every character trait we are building a culture in which it’s normal to be sick, rather than normal to be healthy which is what most of us are most of the time. It’s important that schools attempt to share this idea, not whip everyone into a navel-gazing furore in which we are constantly trying to determine what is wrong with us rather than assuming the best of ourselves.

Mental health and its infinite permutations have been subjects of study and debate since time immemorial. In some historical cultures people with unusual personality traits were often designated special status because they were difficult to categorise according to social convention; as a result they were often seen as embodying the sacred and may have been used to fulfil important social functions, for example as shamans or healers in pre-medicalised societies. This kind of thinking seems a distant romanticisation now; if anything is deemed different then we automatically assume there is a problem and stigmatise it with negative connotations, when in fact we ought to be coming at this from the opposite approach and assume that there isn’t an illness or condition to diagnose and that if there is an issue it can probably be dealt with sensibly rather than labelling it, diagnosing it, making a prognosis and therefore inflating and prolonging an issue that may not have been there in the first place.

A big part of the problem is that many of the current approaches to parenting and teaching simply foster young adults with an inflated sense of entitlement. Child-centred, ego-inflating strategies build young people up with a deluded sense of themselves and the world that in the end will lead to disappointment and possibly despair. We shouldn’t teach them to think that the world revolves around them; it doesn’t. We should instead teach them to be pleased with who they are whilst always striving to improve, to get on with it and to be resilient. To do this we need to work towards building a culture of positivity where it’s normal to work hard, help others, and be happy and healthy. We have a long way to go to achieve anything like this.

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About Andrew Warner

Mostly English teacher, AHT (T&L/literacy/CPD) & bibliophile. Irregular examiner, MTBer, armchair anthropologist & bassist. Fascinated by language & behaviour.

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