How to tackle the stress students feel – and not just around exam time

I remember getting a knot in my stomach on Monday mornings. Schools can be anxiety-provoking places even at the best of times, but when it came to exam season my anxiety would be at an all-time high. Although I know that many teachers say ‘it’s not all about exams’, students sometimes find that hard to believe. Our educational careers are punctuated by exams. So even though we’re taught how to answer the questions we might find in the exam hall, are we able to manage our feelings during the time surrounding exams?

Exam stress

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Exams and results days are full of stress, but for many so is the whole school year. How do we combat this anxiety epidemic?

Over the summer the media coverage of exams featured the usual anxiety-riddled headlines on our morning TV screens, students holding envelopes, attempting to stop their hands from shaking too much and remembering to smile for the cameras. During the summer in the evenings leading up to GCSE and A-level results I was looking on social media feeling the same sense of dread I’d felt only a few years before. The number of ‘what if I’ve failed’ tweets made the anxiety come back. It struck me that the fear that I’d passively absorbed at school still lived inside me.

Both my parents are successful, in my eyes, yet their paths haven’t been without bumps in the road. Perhaps during the course of my education journey I’d forgotten that. I looked around and all I could see was a group of people doing better than I was. Yes, I also saw people who didn’t get the grades they wanted, but my main focus was on those ‘succeeding’. Comparing ourselves with others is a dangerous thing, as it removes individuality and promotes fear. Learning how to set our own goals, defining success on our terms, and getting passionate about things we enjoy also needs to be taught to students.

Our current education system seems to have put exams at the heart of it. While I know that’s not going to change overnight, I fear that the system hasn’t catered for the emotional needs of students sitting those exams and those receiving their exam results. Feeling anxious about an exam is one thing, but let’s not forget the feelings of getting exam results. Schools are good at putting in support for students on results day, but if they’ve already instilled into students that exams are the be-all and end-all, then it could be too late. Sitting GCSE or A-Level exams can feel like you’re on a conveyer belt and students need to know there’s a basket waiting to catch them at the end of it.

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about the emotional welfare of students in schools. This speaks to what is happening in wider society, with stigma surrounding mental health being slowly eroded. Any student who is struggling with issues around anxiety, self-confidence or stress will benefit from knowing that these issues can be talked about and that others are going through something similar.

Putting in place drop-in sessions, collecting anonymous feedback from students or group exercises exploring emotional wellbeing are just some techniques that have been adopted by some schools across the country. Teaching mindfulness techniques might also be a way to empower young people to look after their mental health in their own time. Although some schools may already have these approaches in place during exam season, having them throughout the school year could allow students to feel that their emotional needs are being considered at all stages of their education.

What seems clear to me is that amid the educational reforms and changes to how exams are graded, the education system has forgotten about the emotional needs of students sitting exams. Important strides towards having conversations about mental health in schools have already been made, but students need more than that. Anxiety around being ‘successful’ and defining success needs to be looked at. By not addressing these emotional needs now, students are at risk of suffering the consequences later on in life.