Beating exam stress

Amy Jackson looks at ways teachers and staff can help students deal with the stresses and strains of the exam period

Recent news from ChildLine shows children are increasingly suffering from exam stress and the helpline has said it’s seen a 200 percent increase in youngsters mentioning the issue during counselling sessions.

I am assistant head of pastoral at Barnard Castle School in County Durham where we have a pastoral network in place which comes to the fore over the exam period. We have small tutor groups so tutors know students well and a child finding the examination period tough will already have their support and mechanisms in place. This could be taking time to sit with the student and listen, supporting and helping to organise their revision structure and liaising with other subject teachers. It is the time spent listening to students during this period that helps them the most. An open-door policy provided by all our tutors, housemasters and mistresses means that students know we are available to support them at any time.

When students ask me for advice on how they can make exam periods run more smoothly, the first thing I ask them to do is acknowledge the pressure that they’re under and that the exam process can be overwhelming. Feeling stressful is entirely normal in the circumstances.

I also explain that some form of stress is sometimes necessary to a degree for optimum performance. Once that has been acknowledged we ask students to think about practising mindfulness techniques. We emphasize that these are not complex but easy to learn and simply require patience and practice: 

• in a world that is hectic even before exams, we suggest that students find a quiet time to be still and without electronic devices or social media

• take time to consider just one thought at a time: the present moment. By doing this, we ask them to see that the thought is constructive and positive

• when students panic about an exam we try to reinforce how much control they can have over the situation beforehand

• if they feel anxious during the exam we tell them to focus on their breath and count in and out for seven seconds, explaining quick breathing is a physiological response to panic and they can control it and bring their focus back

• we suggest students approach exams positively, focusing on what they have understood, prepared and can do

• as teachers we are calm for them in the lead-up to exams. A calm teacher usually manages to assuage anxiety felt by our students

• we give each exam student a small double sided A5 booklet that has these tips in along with others on exam anxiety and how they can be prepared.

Amy Jackson is assistant head of pastoral at Barnard Castle School

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