GCSEs: A healthy approach

Written by: Clare Stafford | Published:
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Exam season is looming and many pupils will be feeling the pressure. Clare Stafford looks
at ideas for offering emotional support in the run-up to and during the exam period

A certain degree of worry is natural for pupils taking exams but there are simple steps that we can take to ensure that this does not escalate beyond what is healthy.

A series of booklets, produced by the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust (CWMT) in association with HeadStart Wolverhampton, is designed to support pupils’ mental wellbeing before, during and after their GCSEs.

There are three booklets in the series – one for pupils, one for teachers and one for parents. Written by CWMT trainer Rachel Welch, they take an informal but reassuring approach, with plenty of practical tips.

Supporting your pupils

The teachers’ guide offers short-term advice to help your students prepare and tips for how you can support their emotional wellbeing during the exams. It also offers some long-term preparation tips, which you might consider using with next year’s GCSE cohort.

A long-term approach

The teachers’ guide advocates a long-term approach. For example, for some children, facing the silence of the exam hall can, in itself, induce anxiety, so teaching children to manage silence from an early age – giving pupils time in the school day to be quiet and aware of their breathing – will give them an in-built coping strategy to use in the quiet of the exam room.

Other examples of this long-term approach include creating space in class and assemblies to talk about emotions, encouraging peer support and ensuring that staff themselves are emotionally well and able to model the resilience they expect from students. This creates the best possible environment for students to tackle challenges such as their GCSEs.

In the run-up to exams

In the shorter term, there is much you can do in the run-up to the exams to support your pupils:

  • Be positive about the exams and transparent about what will happen – letting them know if there will be external invigilators for example, and allowing them to air their thoughts if there has been anything negative in the media about GCSEs.
  • Discuss coping strategies with them if they are feeling anxious or worried. Make them aware that stress can be a good thing and anxiety is largely normal, and not something necessarily to be afraid of.
  • Reinforce how proud you are of them – not every student will attain the grades you hope they will, but it is important to acknowledge effort and determination nonetheless.
  • Involve parents by holding a GCSE information evening – explain what strategies the school is putting in place to help their children through the exams, and encourage them to do the same.

During the exams period

Once the exams start, staff can help ensure the environment is the most conducive to children doing their best. For example:

  • Consider offering a free breakfast club and suspending assemblies. Not only does that ensure all students have had a decent amount to eat beforehand, but it also enables you to keep in touch with them and deal with any worries. Play music, provide tasty food and set the mood!
  • Tell students to keep on top of their schedule and be prepared, but also to rest and have fun where possible. Last-minute panicked revision will be less effective than a good night’s sleep or going for a walk with friends.
  • It is important to keep offering praise and encouragement at every opportunity – and remind them that GCSEs are just for a season.
  • Once the exams are finished, you might want to consider sending written confirmation from the headteacher congratulating the pupils on completing such an important milestone.

Is it beyond ‘normal’ stress?

While a certain amount of stress or anxiety is to be expected, there is of course a tipping point. You should be concerned about a pupil if GCSEs are:

  • Affecting their appetite or ability to sleep.
  • Altering their personality.
  • Affecting their relationships.
  • Inducing panic or tears.
  • Leading to disengagement from lessons or attending school.

There are a number of steps you can take to support a pupil for whom this is the case:

  • Talk to the family – it is important to get a snapshot of anything happening at home that you may not be aware of.
  • Spend time with the student, asking what aspect of GCSEs concerns them most – perhaps the prospect of failure or the unknown of the exam papers. Identify the fear and take steps from there, while reassuring them that some stress and anxiety is normal and can be managed.
  • Consider what additional support the student might benefit from, for example having a familiar adult to speak to before or after exams.

Follow-up is vital. For most students, signs and symptoms of stress or anxiety may disappear as soon as the exams are over. If that is not the case, further intervention may be required – but it is at this point that young people may slip through the net, so it is vital that someone checks in with them and passes on any concerns.

Advice for pupils & parents

Schools can also signpost students and families to the pupils’ and the parents’ guide.

The pupils’ guide reinforces the importance of students doing the best they can while also promoting an approach that minimises stress. There is factual information about the GCSE period and some tips.

These relate to being organised, going outside, using relaxation techniques and keeping a healthy balance. It encourages pupils to talk to teachers about any concerns they have and to their parents or carers, and also to take care of their friends, who may be struggling.

Meanwhile, the parents’ guide looks at how they can promote wellbeing around GCSEs and offers advice on what to do if they are particularly concerned about their child’s anxiety or stress.

  • Clare Stafford is the CEO of the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust. Visit www.cwmt.org.uk

Further information & resources

An emotionally healthy approach to GCSEs – guides for teachers, parents and pupils – are available at www.cwmt.org.uk/resources. Equivalent guides are available for Scotland.


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