Exams and mental health

As we approach the months of revision and testing, it is easy for young people and parents to get caught up in the near hysteria that can surround GCSE and A level exams. I thought it might be useful to take a look at some tips for staying healthy during the exam season.

Many young people in schools are encouraged to over-prepare! This can result in anxiety and perfectionism with lots of worry, if even a grade is dropped in a class test. The other common response is the ‘rabbit in headlights’ where students isolate themselves in their rooms (often with many hours spent on gaming or online chat) and can’t find a way to tell parents or teachers that they are behind with course-work or revision.

There is a lot of pressure on teachers and school leaders to produce good results and this is passed onto the students. Teachers, parents and students are all in a system that can be very rigid and unforgiving of the individual needs and quirks of adolescents. This includes the anxiety that many parents carry around of their own experiences of school and exams. Now that GCSE exams are being taught and sat as early as year 9 in some schools, there is a smaller and smaller window for learning for the simple fun of it.

Whilst the next sentence may sound counterintuitive, it is important to be realistic about the messages that students receive daily in school. They need to be well-rounded and happy in order to be successful; both in exams and later in life. So to practice healthy habits early on in their development it can be helpful to encourage the following:

  • A break after school with something to eat and drink and maybe walking the dog or interacting with the family socially.
  • Revision away from the bedroom so that the young person can experience being part of the family and parents can interact and check-in.
  • Regular, calm conversations about how things are going and deadlines that may be approaching.
  • A clear system of revision and reward set up with the young person, so that work is achievable in segments and the brain then regularly experiences resulting activity through the dopamine reward system.

Space for nonjudgmental communication about progress and targets. Many young people talk of ‘letting down’ parents and teachers if they feel they are not doing well enough. This can lead to the blurring of realistic achievements through high levels of unrealistic expectations that often trigger the “fight and flight” response in the limbic area of the brain. These anxious responses can shut down a student or drive them to over-working. In both cases a technique such as 'chunking' can bring perspective.

Chunking is a realistic conversation about what needs to be achieved, dates and deadlines and how a student feels they are going to get there. For some people, help in untangling deadlines and priority tasks can be enough to make the way forward clearer. For some they will need encouragement to find the right revision style for them. This can be done by helping them access online resources such as BBC “bite size” or revision sessions held at school. What you are trying to do is to stem the tide of overwhelming feelings into manageable chunks. Encouraging students to revise for the earlier exams first and then physically removing them from a board once sat can be liberating for everyone!

Perspective students are often led to believe that these results will be the end of the world if they don’t succeed at the highest level. Have regular conversations with them to bring perspective. Talk about multiple pathways to achieve what they want to, expanded time-scales, re-sits, and the concept of 'good enough.'

As long as a young person is working well and to the level that they know they can, then it is what I call, good enough. This isn't to discourage hard work and moving beyond personal expectations, but not all young people suit exams and exams aren’t a test of intelligence under current curriculums - they are more a test of memory.

Try to help your adolescent untangle their real self from what they achieve. This is healthy practice for their whole life!

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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