Exam season and wellbeing support

Written by: Laura Ralph | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As exam season is now under way, Laura Ralph looks at how schools can support pupils who are feeling the pressure around their assessments

This time of year can be stressful for pupils and teachers alike. Exams can be a source of worry and expectation for both parties, so it is important that schools are promoting positivity and wellbeing.

The new GCSE grading system has been another source of anxiety, with many school leaders expressing their concerns. There have also been press reports of pupils “breaking down in class” and “crying in the toilets” in the lead up to this year’s exams.

While many schools host revision groups, provide counselling and work with parents to support pupil wellbeing throughout the year, extra measures can be helpful at this particularly stressful time. Below we provide some tips on strategies and resources to help you navigate this period and boost support for pupils.

Talk about stress

We spoke to Brenda McHugh, co-director of the Anna Freud Centre’s Mental Health in Schools programme, about how you can talk to pupils about exam stress.

She suggests taking the time to explain to pupils how the brain reacts to stress, so that they are more able to recognise the symptoms and prevent escalation. Symptoms to be aware of might include: tiredness, headaches, feeling sick, dizzy or fainting. One secondary school we know put together a fact sheet for pupils to take home, which explains why stress happens and how to manage it.

Another strategy is to encourage pupils to talk to each other about exam worries. If pupils know that others in their class are likely to be feeling the same as them, they may feel less isolated. You could set up a mentoring system, either with designated staff mentors or via drop-ins with older pupils. This extends the support network for pupils and provides a dedicated person they know they can turn to. School leaders may wish to talk about how they themselves manage stressful situations, to act as role-models in school. Pupils are likely to pick up on how their teachers are responding to the pressures of the exam period, so ensure that your staff are taking time out over breaks and lunchtimes to recover.

Boost self-esteem

One expert in school leadership, who is also the trustee of a mental health charity, explained to us that boosting self-esteem is key to helping pupils manage stress during exams.

Make sure that teachers take time to talk to pupils about what they are good at and enjoy – and encourage pupils to make time for this in their revision schedules. You could put aside a slot in the school timetable for activities which build up pupils’ self-belief. This could include light-hearted games involving team-work and creative tasks.

You might also consider altering your PSHE provision, or running an inspiring assembly that gives pupils tips on managing exam worries and explains who to talk to if they’re feeling low.

Childline has produced guidance on replacing negative thoughts with positive internal messages, and visualising the exam going well (see further information).

Help parents to support children

If pupils receive support both at home and at school, they are likely to feel more reassured. An anxious parent may cause further stress to a pupil already feeling under pressure. School leaders can help by running parent workshops on wellbeing, or providing information on how the exam season works in the school.

A wellbeing workshop with parents could involve a discussion about what to say and what to avoid saying, so as not to add to the pressure pupils are experiencing. You might also encourage parents to help their child make a manageable plan to tackle workload, and cover lifestyle tips such as diet and exercise.

Provide activities and resources for pupils

We have spoken to many school leaders who recommend various ways for schools to help pupils relieve stress. These include setting up a calm, quiet space in school, the creative use of music and arts for relaxation, and time spent outdoors being active.

One former headteacher suggested running optional relaxation classes featuring breathing exercises and meditation.

There are many resources available for pupils on managing their stress levels during the exam period, such as:

  • Childline’s guidance pack for pupils on beating exam stress and planning revision.
  • Tips on coping with exams from mental health charity Mind.
  • The BBC’s advice website for young people, associated with BBC Radio 1.
  • The NHS has also published information for parents and carers on recognising and easing young people’s exam stress – and on when to see a GP about the issue.
  • Laura Ralph is a researcher at The Key, which provides impartial leadership and management support to schools in England.

Further information


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