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As children’s charity Childline recently announced that the number of counselling sessions they’ve delivered about exam stress to young people has increased by 10% in the last year, we’ve created this guide to help you support the children and young people in your care who may be experiencing exam stress.
Do you recall the stress of exam season when you were at school? Hours of studying, sleepless nights and then the big day arrives; you find your place in the exam hall, turn over the page and try desperately not to crumble under the pressure.
For the young people in our lives today, the exam stress felt is no different – although it could be speculated that, if anything, it’s worse. The pressures of social media, the long-term impact of interruptions to education from the pandemic and lockdowns, and mental health struggles may all have their part to play in why increasing numbers of children and young people are turning to organisations like Childline for help with exam anxiety.
In 2022-23, Childline practitioners delivered 2,000 counselling sessions to pupils struggling with exam stress. This was a 10% rise from the year before.
For many students completing their exams, the grade they are about to achieve could not only determine the trajectory of their future but may also affect their life much sooner. For example, some students may be hoping to attend university. Others may have certain career paths in mind that are dependent on good grades. The uncertainty of what you will be doing or even where you will be living in a matter of months is no small stress to bear. In addition, some young people may experience pressure to post about their results on social media and the potential to feel ‘public internet shame’ is pressing.
Students in transition years (for example, moving from primary to secondary school) may also be feeling anxious about leaving somewhere familiar to face a new place and new people. Many will be meeting with new teachers and classmates in their schools towards the end of the year, and this can be a lot to take in, especially alongside exam stress.
44% of Childline’s counselling sessions about exam stress took place in April, May and June.
A recent survey by the Association of School and College Leaders found that more than eight in 10 headteachers say their pupils are more stressed and anxious about exams this year than they were pre-pandemic.
Is there good stress and bad stress?
Good stress, also known as ‘eustress’, refers to stress that is seen as beneficial to health, motivation, performance and wellbeing. This can be seen in some young people who may still see exams as stressful and a difficult time, but the stress motivates them to revise and work hard, allowing them to perform at a higher standard. This sort of stress can be well within some young people’s coping abilities, despite how it may feel at the time. Stress in relation to exams is not always bad and may in fact be a push to help them best perform.
Bad stress is known as ‘distress’ and this refers to when someone experiences feelings of anxiety, mental suffering, affliction, or it has negative implications. This can come about because a young person is feeling low levels of pressure, they may not have a goal in order and they’re thinking “what’s the point?” or on the flip side, they’ve faced too high a level of stress and are now at a stage of burnout.
What are the signs a young person is facing distress?
Despite stress having its positives, it can also have a big effect on young people when it turns to distress.
Red flags that a young person is not coping with the level of stress they’re experiencing include:
Expressing negativity about the future
Acting out or acting out of character
An inability to sleep
Feeling frequently unwell
Sleeping poorly and struggling to get out of bed
Losing appetite or over-eating
So, How Can You Help? Top Tips for Supporting a Young Person through Exam Stress
1. Talking and Listening
It may sound obvious but communicating with a child or young person who is suffering the effects of stress and exam anxiety can actually be difficult in practice.
One of the first factors to consider is choosing your timing. Finding a moment in which they feel open to engaging in dialogue is key – don’t pick a time in which they might feel rushed, ‘on the spot’ or distracted. A simple WhatsApp message checking in on your young person can be exactly what they need at that moment. A reassuring message such as ‘you’ve got this’ or ‘you’re great’ can be the comforting push they require to keep them motivated and feel confidence in their abilities.
Over a quarter of parents admit they don’t know how to start a conversation with their child about their child’s mental health.
It may feel logical to ask a young person to come sit on the sofa or at the dining room table, but this could create an atmosphere of intensity – or, even worse, like they’re in trouble!
Instead, try to open a conversation when you’re in a more casual setting and with perhaps less intense eye contact! For example, when on a walk, out for dinner or in the car.
76% of people in Britain claim to have the most deep and meaningful conversations in the car.
Ask open questions, i.e., questions that don’t have a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Open questions allow space for the person answering to talk, rather than just give a short response that could ‘kill’ the conversation. It gives them the chance to air any problems, worries or stresses they have.
If you can, acknowledge that this might be a difficult time and that you know exams can cause stress and emotional upset. By broaching the subject first, you’re taking away the worry and pressure they may feel about bringing up anxiety about exams.
It is important to remind young people to keep exams in perspective – they are short term and will eventually end, meaning the feelings of pressure and stress they have will end too.
How are you feeling about the upcoming exams?
I’m sure going through this period of your life with exams and studying must be very stressful – how do you feel you are coping?
I remember being very stressed when I was doing exams and I could have used some extra support – what would you like me to do to support you through this time?
2. Know the Signs and What to Do
Don’t be afraid to seek support for children in your care if they display any signs that may be indicative of exam stress, as mentioned above.
If you are concerned about them, knowing where to turn to next is important – rather than panicking (which could make them feel worse), by being armed with the knowledge of resources, you’re reassuring them that there’s support available while also helping destigmatise the idea of getting help for issues like exam stress.
Talk to the young person/people you support about organisations that can help, such as Childline.
Almost two thirds (64%) of children in the UK rarely or never speak to their parents about their mental health.
3. Be Understanding
Be flexible when it comes to your expectations; chores may have to take a backfoot for a while. If the young person in your care is struggling to cope, they may not have enough emotional ‘room’ to deal with other issues or situations – they aren’t being selfish, their emotional capacity is simply ‘full’. For example, if they forget to empty the dishwasher, be mindful of how you approach this – dealing with ‘nagging’ from a stressed-out, busy mum might be understandable under any other circumstances, but might send an anxious young person into a panic.
Understand that their screens may be the escape they require, despite it appearing outwardly unproductive. Connecting through social media, watching Netflix, or playing a game may be the ‘off-time’ they need to keep them balanced and avoiding burn out.
4. Use Tech for Good
Phones, laptops, and gaming consoles are a big part of young people’s daily lives – but in times of stress, they can become a force for good or for bad. Encourage healthy screen time habits (check our resources designed to help you with this link) to help the young person in your care avoid those staying-up-to-3am-watching-nonsense habits that will no doubt interfere with both their studying routine and their general health. However, don’t be tempted to outright ban their digital access; cutting them off from socialisation, entertainment and educational resources is likely to have the opposite affect than desired.
Instead, have a look together at apps and websites that could potentially help to minimise their anxiety about exams, such as yoga and mindfulness apps. You can read more about mindfulness on Mind’s Website and learn more about it in the videos below.
Almost one in four (24%) of parents said that they had noticed their child going online or using their phones more as a result of increased stress.
5. Support Healthy Routines
Alongside healthy screen time routines, it’s important to make sure other aspects of a healthy lifestyle are being maintained, such as sleep hygiene, healthy eating habits and exercise.
Ensure your young people are aware of their own boundaries and when they need a break. The pomodoro technique can help young people work in block periods of time, with frequent breaks. There are apps available for this purpose. It can assist in ensuring they are revising in manageable amounts.
What is the pomodoro technique?
This is a time management strategy to ensure manageable revision blocks. It involves a young person revising for 30 minutes then having a 10-minute break following this routine repeatedly. There are apps available to support this method.
The importance of sleep for cognitive performance cannot be overstated. It’s thought that when we sleep, our brains process information to create memories, a vital function when learning and retaining information. The NHS recommend that young people get a minimum of 8 -10 hours of sleep per night.
Encourage healthy habits and coping mechanisms when the stress does become too much. Physical activities like exercising, going for a walk or playing with your dog can be the break from school and screens that a young person needs. Exercise has many benefits to our physical and mental health. Being outside in the fresh air will also boost energy levels and help young people’s ability to focus. Exercise releases endorphins (happy chemicals), which decrease stress and improve sleep.
Shareables and Further Resources:
Teachers and safeguarding professionals with access to our Safer Schools App can complete our Free CPD Certified Mental Health Awareness Course.
Parents and Carers with access to our Safer Schools NI App can find further resources on supporting the children in their care in the Health and Wellbeing section of their app.