24 Jan 2018

How to manage exam stress

classroom students writing

Many young people experience emotional and physical impacts relating to exam stress. There is correlation between mental health difficulties and the personal motivation linked to aiming for excellent exam results.

Caring to work hard and do well is good but we all have to find a balance and perfectionism can be a trigger for distress. The key is to have moderate stress and to learn techniques for recognising and managing your own stress.

Ellern Mede School supports vulnerable young people to maintain high educational levels while managing their stress levels effectively. Knowing when the pressure is becoming too much is a really important life skill. Patients participating in therapy at Ellern Mede have the opportunity to learn stress management strategies such as taking breaks, mindfulness skills and talking to others about how they feel to enhance their coping skills.

For the most vulnerable cohort of young people, early intervention with support for their emotional and education needs is vital. Early intervention can avert the deeper mental illnesses or eating disorders from really taking hold. At Ellern Mede School we recognise the importance of a fully integrated service that draws together clinical and educational professionals with the objective of giving young people experiencing a mental illness to have the resilience to survive, strive and thrive.

The Guardian published an article on research by Frédéric Brière et al, of the University of Montreal which was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in July 2017. (Depressive and anxious symptoms and the risk of secondary school non-completion.) Starting in 2002, the researchers tracked 4,962 secondary school students in Quebec from the age of 12 to the end of secondary school, checking them annually.

Among the findings are that:

  • depressive symptoms are more likely among high-achieving students
  • academic success is linked to moderate anxiety
  • students reporting levels of anxiety either higher or lower than the optimum ‘moderate’ level were more likely to leave their schooling without qualifications
  • exam-linked and achievement-linked depression and anxiety were more prevalent among girls than boys
  • bullying is a factor linked to anxiety in many pupils of secondary school age in this research

Quoted in The Guardian article cited here, Mr Brière added: “A troubling proportion (6-22%) of adolescents do not complete secondary school in the UK and North America. Non completion perpetuates social inequality. These adolescents are at high risk of experiencing a wide range of psychosocial, physical and mental health difficulties as adults.

The findings resonate with work in health psychology on eustress which is a ‘good’ amount of stress that enhances performance. Too much and you experience distress. This seems to reflect the experience of the people in the Montreal study.

Adel Shirbini, Headmaster of Ellern Mede School who has more than 25 years of experience in education, believes there is over assessment and pressure in mainstream schools. He believes young people who are experiencing vulnerability need therapeutic schools such as Ellern Mede in order to make good educational achievement part of their recovery.

“Having worked in mainstream and independent education I have witnessed what I believe are unintended consequences of changes intended to improve school performance – over-assessment and a focus on results to the exclusion of other important facets of the learning environment. Instead of a nurturing and developmental environment, students compete with one another for results and this can have a devastating effect on the mental health of young people. Adolescence is in itself a time of vulnerability. Some young people will have biological or neurological propensity to anxiety. Personal development can more readily be achieved with stable support.”


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