Anxious times


Damian Hind’s claim that linear exams build character and reduce stress appear absurd.

Teachers are reporting that the new GCSEs and A levels have increased stress levels among students. In a survey last summer carried out by the Association of School and College Leaders, 9 in 10 headteachers reported that the new GCSEs harmed pupils’ mental health. No doubt there needs to be some further research on the matter, but in the meantime, what can we do to help? Here are five easy strategies to use with your students.


Suggested Strategies


1. Explain to them what stress is. Explore the science behind it and how to recognise it. Students need to know that this is a normal response and they should not be alarmed by it. There is a great student guide here . Maybe share some of your own experiences or those of anonymous students. This will take some of the severity out of the stress. Stress is our body’s way of alerting us to an imminent threat or danger. Students will feel more in control if they can recognise their own signs. Understanding how stress can sometimes be a driver for positive results is also beneficial. There is a great Tedtalk by Kelly McGonigal that I have shared with students. She reveals the positive effects of stress. Finish it with a cheesy groups hug. They secretly love it.


2. Show them how to revise. Often students will feel overwhelmed and unsure on how to approach revision. There are plenty of articles on the most effective revision practices available for you to look at. A good place to start is by looking at John Dunlovsky’s work. He has ranked the most effective strategies such as self-testing to the least, like highlighting notes. I use this research to shape guides for my students on how to revise. You can download an example of this here. It is also worth sharing with them some apps that can help minimise distractions during their revision Cold Turkey is great for blocking social media or Self Control will block out those absorbing websites.


3. Try some relaxation techniques with them. This might seem like some new age claptrap but it works. In fact, even the US Marines use it as part of their own training. There are some great free apps that students can access, for example The Mindfulness App, Calm or Headspace. I used Headspace 10 minute sessions during assemblies with my students. Most of the kids looked sceptical, at times giggled and generally thought I was mad. However, despite some really tough incidents (and I mean really tough) every one of them entered their exams, got their university places and the results improved that year compared to trend data.


4. Also, remind them to hydrate. If a student is having an anxious episode, get them to swill some water in their mouth and drink more. Drinking water can lessen the intensity of anxiety. Dehydration has been linked to a rise in cortisol levels which can increase stress. Also, the symptoms of dehydration look very similar to the sensations of anxiety: headaches, feeling dizzy and increased heart rate for example. This can trick our mind into thinking we are having an anxious episode.


5. Don’t pass on stress to your students. As teachers we often get more stressed than our students during the exam period. ‘Why do they still not know why Hitler came to power in 1933?’ (Argh). However, John Thomsett warns in his headteacher’s blog, ‘This much I know’ against passing on these stressors to the students. He emphasises the importance of mental well being and goes as far as arguing against ‘interventions’ (extra revision classes). Whilst this might be a bit too much for us all to stomach, he does use evidence to support his claims. There must be a balance. Calling hundreds of after school sessions surely ramps up the institutional stress levels which might be counter productive.


5. If things to become too overwhelming for your students, there are a number of agencies that can help students alongside any resources you may have within your school or college. Kooth is a new one that is proving very popular for young people. Once they are registered, there are a lot of resources they can get access to on a range of mental health issues and they offer a text service. Young people can text a counsellor and access support. It is an anonymous service and it can really help those in crisis.