As soon as Christmas is out the way the push begins towards exam season. Schools step up their preparation, parents and families begin discussing them more, and for young people the stress and anxiety levels increase. What’s important in this preparation time is that we ensure that the mental wellbeing of the person takes priority. Too much stress and anxiety produces cortisol in our brain which affects our memory, which in turn will affect exam performance. Here are some basic guidelines which will help ensure that student mental health doesn’t become an issue around exams.
Ensure the young person doesn’t feel that any love or respect for them is dependent on the exam results. We all want to be loved and sometimes they can feel that this love will be taken away or reduced if they don’t achieve a certain standard. They may not have specifically been told that, but subconscious messages can infer that without us realising. Love should never be conditional on exam results.
Recognise that the exams are a stepping stone and not the be all and end all. There is always an opportunity to retake them or follow another path if the expected grades are not as achieved. Hearing messages that ‘the rest of your life depends on these exams’ is not only untrue, but also detrimental to the wellbeing of students. Exams are one sign of a persons worth and not the only sign. We need to remember that. I speak to middle aged and older people now who are still feel stigmatised by failing the 11+, that they aren’t very clever because of this. We must ensure that this isn’t the case for our young people today.
Positive motivation always improves performance more than negative. Think about top athletes – their motivational talk before an event doesn’t consist of ‘well you haven’t put enough work into preparation, so you will probably lose, and you could have done so much better’. It consists of positive motivation, believing, inspiring. What we think and believe has a massive effect on our performance. All too often, as teachers and parents, we believe that we have to warn students of the awful impact if they don’t revise enough. How many people they will be letting down. This doesn’t work. It increases anxiety and stress. Anxiety and stress produces cortisol, too much cortisol affects the memory.
Maintain a social life and relaxation time during revision and the exam season. We all need a well-balanced life, and this becomes even more necessary during stressful times. We need a break, we need to meet with friends and laugh. We need distraction. Isolation during revision time isn’t healthy and there is lots of brain chemical research that reinforces this. Social isolation and ruminative negative thinking are key factors in mental health issues.
When we are socially isolated, negative thinking can increase so take regular breaks and meet people, do fun activities.
Teach students how to manage stress and anxiety. Discuss how it is a normal part of life and small amounts can be positive. However, it must not become overwhelming. When a young person tells you they are stressed/anxious hear them and acknowledge it then discuss the stress. Don’t say ‘you have nothing to worry about’ or ‘you don’t know what stress is really, wait till you’re older’. Ask them specifically what they are worried about, how likely is it to come true and what will they do if it does come true. Anxiety is about fear of the unknown and not knowing what to do, not being in control. Developing a plan for each scenario reduces the anxiety. Sometimes people believe that giving an ‘easier option’ will mean they won’t try as hard. This isn’t true because the positive motivation will spur them on! Ultimately always reinforce that whatever happens they will be ok and they will be loved.
When results come in don’t do the ‘yeah but’. Yeah you did well but think of how well you could have done if you had really worked hard at it. Celebrate the achievement and getting through it. If the results aren’t as expected look at alternatives. There is always an alternative. Many people I know took a different path to what was expected and were glad they did! There were exams I didn’t pass first time and that’s ok. It didn’t hinder my life.
Exam time is a stressful time but we can make it easier by being supporting and positive. When we fall in love with someone or make new friends, we don’t ask them what their exams results are, and if they aren’t good enough, we reject them. Exams are a stepping stone in life and not worth damaged mental health that can stay with you for a lifetime.