So exam season is upon us. Personally, my memories of exams are far from positive: last minute revision, anxiety inducing post-exam conversations with friends, cramming late into the night. It would seem young people today feel exam stress more acutely, although thankfully they are reaching out more and more for help and support. A recent survey by the Association of School and College Leaders found that more than 8 in 10 Head Teachers say their pupils are more stressed and anxious about exams this year than they were pre-pandemic. The charity Childline released data showing that over 200 counselling sessions about exam worries took place in March 2022, nearly double the number of sessions in September 2021, and a 62% rise from March the previous year.
The question is why are young people getting so anxious over exams, and why does this pressure seem to be increasing? While some exam stress and anxiety is healthy and can drive students to put in more effort, which in turn drives them to perform well, for some people it can be hugely debilitating, which leads to less successful revision and preparation. Young people tackle revision very differently: some will have worked so hard that they risk burnout, whilst others will feel they have not done enough and panic, and some will struggle because the realisation has set in that actually they probably should have done more work, listened more and concentrated in class—all potentially leading to anxiety. Striking the right balance is always tricky too. How much revision is too much revision? Plus weighing up cramming until 3.00am or getting a good night’s sleep. Young people are definitely feeling the pressure. The need to succeed and do well is incredibly important to them, and the consequences of poor results is a real fear.
Young people can become extremely anxious as a result of unattainable academic expectations and the pressure they perceive is being placed on them. As adults, we must ensure we appreciate how extreme pressure can have the opposite effect than intended, and can actually lead to reduced concentration, more distraction and result in young people being less able to perform well in an exam environment. So how do we encourage and motivate in the right way? How do we motivate without causing added stress? By showing young people love and kindness, constant encouragement and support, and maybe the occasional reminder that exams aren’t everything, but that future employers don’t just look at results but will be interested in attitude, transferable skills and interpersonal skills too.
Remind them to take breaks, eat well and sleep.
Talking about exam worries and anxiety certainly helps, as does reminding young people that it’s normal to feel anxious and that nervousness is a natural reaction to exams. Young people need to see the hard work they have already put in, and recognise the time they have spent preparing and use this knowledge to feel more confident. Remind them to take breaks, eat well and sleep. Adults need to ensure they are listening to young people giving them support, not criticism, reassuring them that they are doing really well and that whatever the outcome it will not be the end of the world. It’s vital we encourage young people not to compare themselves to others. At Eton, our most recent Safeguarding Bulletins have been on “Exam Stress” and “Anxiety.” These bulletins, which have been shared with students in B & D Blocks (Years 13 and 11), signpost students to appropriate resources and sources of internal support at school, but also support they can access independently.
Our attitudes and habits around work can become deeply rooted, so we forget that there is a need for a good work life balance.
Finally, should we re-evaluate our behaviours as adults too? What work behaviours are we demonstrating to young people, how do we manage stress and anxiety, do we know when to look after ourselves and recognise we need to take time to manage our own wellbeing? A study by the World Health Organisation found that working 55 hours or more a week was associated with a high risk of stroke and heart attack. It’s increasingly easy for us to normalise long working hours or being under extreme stress, and our attitudes and habits around work can become deeply rooted, so we forget that there is a need for a good work life balance. Adults need to demonstrate that they recognise the need to slow down, do some exercise and reconnect with family and friends, even during times when work must get done. Having a good self-awareness of when we, as adults, need to take a break and an ability to recognise the value of positive wellbeing has got to be good for young people.