Mental health worries amongst students is a topic we’re familiar with. As the stigma surrounding mental health is slowly chipped away at, we’re more exposed to the full extent of just how many people are living with a mental disorder, with 1 in 10 students by the age of 16 being diagnosed with one.
As we start welcoming in shorter days and warmer weather, we also approach the exam season which in turn, raises our concerns surrounding our students’ wellbeing due to the stress and pressure they’re put under in a desire to perform well. This has become prevalent recently as plans were announced for the proposed scrapping of the Year 6 SATs.
There has long been debate surrounding the reading, writing, maths and science exams which are taken by over half a million young children each year. Causes for concern centre around the stress they cause students and the fact that children in England are more frequently tested than the rest of Europe and are also tested too young, too frequently, putting them under immense pressure. Last year even saw some parents taking their children out of schools on the days which exams were due to take place in protest of them.
In replacement of SATs there have been talks of bringing in new teacher assessments for four and five year olds before formal schooling officially begins, which the results will then be used to measure the progress pupils have made by the time they leave primary school. The new assessments to take the place of SATs are planned to be done without pupils realising they are being assessed.
The abolishing of these exams will hopefully have a great impact on students’ mental health as they go into secondary school. The transition from primary to secondary school is tough on its own and can cause children emotional distress, and the added worry of exams during this period can impact on their wellbeing. Having one less stress to worry about could benefit them greatly as having high levels of stress which isn’t dealt with early in life is likely to lead to more serious problems later on.
A recent survey conducted by the teenage mental health charity stem4 found that 79% of children as young as 12 experience emotional distress:
Exam worries 41%
Work overload 31%
Friendship concerns 28%
Being accepted by peers 23%
Lack of confidence 26%
Body image concerns 26%
Low self-esteem 15%
Feeling of being overwhelmed 25%
Although it is good news to parents and younger students that there is talk of exam pressures being alleviated in primary school, this does not mean that exam pressures and stress for students can be evaded in secondary school and university. For this reason, it is important to help students implement positive study habits throughout their time at school and when exam season approaches, provide revision tips that promote a healthy lifestyle, be aware of changes in students’ behaviours and help make them aware of the places they can turn to if they need to talk to someone.
The government’s plans to provide all secondary schools with mental health training will help to detect mental illnesses in students and provide those who are suffering with the support they need, but up until then there are actions we can take to help them through the exam period.
- Help students prioritise revision by looking at upcoming exams
- Set out realistic expectations for a revision timetable so students are doing the right amount and not overworking themselves
- Remind students that although important, exams aren’t the be all and end all - they have valuable skills and resitting exams if they want/need to is always an option
- Let them know that it’s okay to ask for extra help if they need it, be that from you, peers or by seeking a tutor
- Make sure they factor in time for themselves outside of revision, taking the time to unwind at the end of the day and taking breaks will keep them energised and motivated
- Reinforce the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle throughout revision, eating well, drinking lots of water, exercise and getting plenty of sleep will help keep energy up and getting active is a great stress buster
- Try to avoid students comparing themselves to one another - remind them that everyone works differently and has different capabilities, so long as they’re doing their best, it’s all that matters
- Make them aware of who they can speak to if they’re feeling overwhelmed by everything that’s going on - be that you, a teacher, counsellor, parent or helpline
Exams will continue to happen each year, and students will continue to feel pressure and anxiety about how well they will perform as well as in life after this period. As educators, we have done all we can to help prepare them academically for this time that our help then turns into supporting them in applying all that they have learnt and ensuring they’re looking after their mental and physical wellbeing. There is always outside help that you can recommend to students if they wish to build their confidence or use additional help such as online tutoring, but it comes down to letting them know where they can turn to and providing them with the extra support they need at these stressful times.