BLOG: Helping your class through exam stress - tips for teachers

Julia Clements, Principal Educational Psychologist at Place2Be, gives advice to teachers on four ways they can support students with stress on Mental Health Awareness Week

What is stress?

Whether you’re a child, a young person or an adult, a test or challenge is bound to cause some stress – and that’s okay! In moderation stress can help us to focus, prepare and take action, but exam season can be a particularly challenging time of year and if pupils are consistently struggling to cope with stress it can interfere with their emotional wellbeing.

Noticing the signs

Sometimes the signs are obvious and pupils might appear worried and seek your help or reassurance. They may put excessive time and effort into completing all their work – and any extra tasks – to as high a standard as possible.

However, pupils who appear to not care at all may be struggling just as much. Those who boast about not revising and seem disinterested in doing well are often avoiding the challenge altogether because they’re worried too.

If any of these behaviours are out of character or particularly pronounced, approach your school counsellor, educational psychologist, SENCo or mental health professional for advice. Meanwhile, here are some things you can consider for all pupils.

4 ways to help

1. Look after yourself first

Exam season is hard for teachers too. Not only are you under a lot of pressure to meet targets and deliver good results, you probably empathise with your class and share some of their stress. Don’t be afraid to call on any support networks you may have inside and outside of school – talk to a colleague, friend or mental health professional about your worries and concerns.

2. Acknowledge and normalise stress

Acknowledging and normalising stress in class by talking about it and doing calming group activities can really help pupils manage it on a day-to-day basis. One simple technique you could use is a 5 minute ‘body scan’ at the beginning or end of a lesson, where everyone closes their eyes and you guide them through focusing on relaxing each part of their bodies, from the top of their head to their toes. Coping with stress is a life skill so if we teach children and young people how to do it early, it’ll help them with everything from job interviews to moving house.

3. Reinforce basic health messages

Are your pupils getting their recommended 8- 9 hours of sleep every night? Are they eating healthily? Are they taking regular breaks and spending time away from their desks with friends? Are they getting enough fresh air and exercise? Are they avoiding substances like cigarettes, caffeine, alcohol and ‘study drugs’ that can become more common in secondary schools? Reminding pupils to prioritise their physical health might seem obvious but these basic things can have a huge impact on our ability to cope with challenges.

4. Use the experience that’s already out there!

Guiding your pupils through their exams is a big responsibility and there’s no reason why you can’t make use of others’ experience. If you’re a secondary school teacher, why not invite sixth form students to talk about how they coped with stress during their GCSEs? Not only will they have helpful tips of their own, but seeing other young people who managed the challenge can be reassuring in itself. Digital tools can be useful too. Apps like Stop, Breathe & Think mean that children and young people can practice relaxation techniques everywhere, from the school bus to their bedroom.

Information and resources:

Place2Be is a children's mental health charity providing school-based support and in-depth training programmes to improve the emotional wellbeing of pupils, families, teachers and school staff. Place2Be’s important work is generously supported by the players of the People’s Postcode Lottery.

This article is an excerpt of a resource which was originally posted on Place2Be’s website. Download the full resource

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