Just the other evening I was fortunate to be able to enjoy a meal with some of our School Prefects, an annual event that celebrates the highly valued contribution to the life of our community made by Senior Students.
As usual, conversations focused on highlights from the student’s time in school and plans for the future. The subject of exam stress and the pressures of life in general came up, not a surprise as we are, of course, in public exam season with Year 11 and Sixth Form students feeling the strain at this challenging time.
Interestingly, a common observation from this group of students is that while 'A' levels are intense and pressurised, Sixth Formers tend to feel more able to cope than they did when taking their GCSE’s.
This makes sense, after all, Year 11 students are very much in the middle of their transition into adulthood; they are experiencing huge amount of change on so many fronts while they are conscious of well-meaning but great expectations others have of them. This is further compounded by the reality that our 16 year olds are faced with highly significant education tests that will reveal how they have progressed throughout their schooling along with what this potentially means for their future.
At the same time, national data reveals that the issue of mental health in young people is a growing concern and that exams risk exacerbating already difficult situations and emotions in young people’s lives. While some of the increase in the reporting of stress among teenagers is likely to do with an increase in awareness of the issue and a greater willingness to share concerns, there can be no doubting the reality that stress, particularly around exam time, risks becoming too much for young shoulders to bear. What is to be done and how can we help?
We should remember that stress and pressure are very normal aspects of life and that these emotions have a positive as well as negative side to them. We need to help the young understand how each person copes with strain and we must provide the young with the tools and skills to manage stress.
One key strategy focuses on planning – planning both for study and fun. It is easy for students to get unproductively ‘locked-in’ to study, so that the attempted revision becomes an anxious, all-consuming and growing worry. Students must be encouraged to get out into the fresh air, take exercise, keep the ‘treats’ going and get plenty of sleep. During times of high pressure, encourage children to spend time with family and friends, to enjoy their favourite foods and to participate in leisure activities.
Families need to be aware and alert to children’s needs and to have realistic conversations about what young people are feeling as well as how they are spending their time…not an easy task at times I admit!
Schools as communities have a central role to play also. Communicating with all the students, encouraging and supporting their emotional well-being as well as their study makes a vital difference. All our staff, including specialist councillors, are geared up to prepare students for the experience of life’s stresses and respond with additional support when needed.
My best wish is that, once the exams are over, pupils find their lives are just as full of potential as they were before and that these 'big-life' moments teach us a great deal about ourselves – something no exam will ever be able to grade.
Headmaster, Bristol Grammar School