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Overcoming exam stress: How engaged parents can support pupil wellbeing

Overcoming exam stress: How engaged parents can support pupil wellbeing

With exam season underway and pressures mounting on pupils and teachers, we explore the role of parents in supporting their child’s wellbeing and academic achievement. 

Whether it’s creating a supportive environment at home, establishing a love for learning, or cultivating a child’s natural talents, one thing remains constant: parents can play a vital role in their child’s educational journey in and out of school.

Research shows that the emphasis on academic attainment in schools and the wider education system is having a negative impact on pupil wellbeing, with 80% of young people saying that exam pressure has significantly impacted on their mental health. Moreover, a recent survey found exam and school-related pressure to be the greatest cause of concern among parents.

But it’s not just pressure from school and the wider challenges that young people face, from social pressure to low self-esteem. We’ve seen how problems at home, breakdown in relationships and/or family pressure, can intensify stress during exam season. Elle Pareshan, Head tutor at EDS Education and mum of two, who works closely with children and their families has witnessed some of these pressures first-hand.

“Parents have such an important role when it comes to supporting their kids with exams. Some parents, however, are unaware of what their kids are learning and how much is really expected of them, but still expect them to do well. So, it’s important for parents to understand what’s involved with exams, what kids have to learn and the increasing pressures pupils are facing.

With key stage 4 maths, for example, students are having to learn some content from A Level modules. In English, students are having to memorise quotes from several different books and use them in their exams. As a parent, it’s important not to place too much pressure or expectation on your kids – this can often have the opposite effect and impact negatively on their grades.” she says.

In some cases even the term ‘exams’ or any mention of exams can risk piling on the pressure: “If schools, especially primary schools, run tests without pupils feeling that it’s the final assessment then it could make a real difference. Exams are essential I think, but if we explored an alternative form of assessment or didn’t use the word ‘SATs’ then we could really help those pupils who feel pressured.”

The link between emotional wellbeing and academic attainment

Further evidence shows how pupil and teacher, and parent and child wellbeing are often closely interlinked, and this is something we’ve seen in the schools we’ve worked in. In our work, we’ve also seen how a good level of emotional wellbeing correlates to higher academic attainment.

Senel had been concerned about her daughter Chelsey’s engagement in school for some time before learning about Kineara’s Motivate to Educate (M2E) programme. “I spoke to the school and found out that she was stressed,” explains Senel, “there were problems going on with girls and all sorts and this was affecting her schoolwork. It got to a stage where enough was enough.”

Soon after, Chelsey began seeing Roz, our M2E practitioner based in Harrington Hill Primary School, who started working through exercises and showing her different communication and relaxation techniques. Roz explains how the programme offered individual and group sessions with her peers at school, but also sessions with her mum and the whole family.

“Roz came to the house a few times which was ideal as it helped us grow closer as a family. When she was here, everyone was getting on with everyone. There was no bickering, no arguments. Chelsey could sit down and express her feelings to Roz and talk about her day at school,” says Senel.

At home, they would play games, watch movies and talk about their feelings, which strengthened relationships within the family and allowed everyone to express themselves freely. Reflecting on a game that used skittles as a starter for talking about how they were feeling, Senel adds: “It was really good as it made Chelsey open up about stuff as well. Every now and again, we play that game ourselves. Chelsey can express the way she feels, and her sister can listen to the way she expresses herself. It’s a fantastic game!”

Senel believes that spending time with her daughter and working closely with practitioner Roz and the school has had a transformative impact on Chelsey, including her grades. “If you see how she was in the beginning. Not that she wouldn’t speak to us, she just found it hard to express herself.” explains Senel. “She used to come home, and she’d slam doors… She wouldn’t interact, she wouldn’t talk about her problems, and she would just make every excuse up not to go to school.

“Now, Chelsey has opened up and learnt how to express herself. The stuff Roz has shown her, she’s like a completely different child. She got high grades in her exams, even the teachers have noticed the change in her, it’s amazing!”

While the school has a duty in creating a supportive environment for pupils, the impact of parents cannot be overlooked. “Parents and teachers who work side by side in the best interest of the kids, can have make a huge difference to their wellbeing and academic attainment – and this creates positive outcomes at home and school. and It’s a win-win situation!” says Elle.

M2E works with pupils aged 4–18 to explore their understanding of education and build on their ambitions. Its success lies in its ability to engage families, teachers and anyone else important to a young person’s learning and aspirations. Find out more about M2E and our education services.

Posted by kineara in Education, Latest
The pressures of exam season: Is there more that can be done in schools to tackle this?

The pressures of exam season: Is there more that can be done in schools to tackle this?

High stakes exams are increasingly causing stress and anxiety in children as young as six, with teachers and parents also feeling the pressure. We believe that a more holistic, joined up support approach is needed in schools, to aid everyone involved in working through this demanding period.

It’s that time of year again.

Growing levels of anxiety, an increased workload for pupils and teachers, and a greater focus on academic attainment over wellbeing in schools, are just some of the reported challenges being faced by pupils and teachers alike.

Exam related stress is, according to a recent survey by the children’s charity Barnado’s, the greatest cause of concern among parents. Moreover, a survey by Girlguiding found 69% of respondents aged 11-21 cited exams as their main cause of stress.

Further evidence shows that the emphasis on exams and academic attainment in schools and the wider education system is having a negative impact on wellbeing, with 80% of young people saying that exam pressure has significantly impacted on their mental health.

The wider challenges that young people face today, from the pressures of a 24-hour digital world to a lack of specialist support and low self-esteem, is also having an impact on emotional wellbeing, in turn affecting the way they approach exams. For some, challenges at home and/or family pressure to do well, can add even further stress during exam season.

Have exam reforms contributed to pupil anxiety? 

In some cases, increasing pressures appear to be surfacing amid the backdrop of government changes to GCSE and A Levels, such as scrapping modules and the majority of coursework, as well as the new 9-1 GCSE grading.

The linear qualifications have reduced stress for pupils because scrapping modules means “fewer stressful periods”, not more, according to Education Secretary, Damian Hinds.

Except the reality for many teachers and school leaders – contrary to Hinds’ claims – is that linear exams have contributed to an even more high-stakes and stressful exam period. To this point, some teachers have argued that stockpiling exam pressure for a few months, especially for SEND students, is not inclusive to the varied needs of children.

The challenges of exam season

Worryingly, reports of pupils crying, vomiting and having nightmares due to exam pressure have even emerged in primary schools. A poll of teachers last year revealed children having nightmares and becoming sick from anxiety after tougher SATs, with many arguing that we need to prepare children for life and not just exams.

Alongside this, education experts, psychotherapists and campaigners have warned that the Government’s plans to introduce baseline assessments for four-year-olds will put undue stress on children, causing “enormous damage” to children’s learning and development. The More Than A Score Coalition have argued, among other things, that it is not necessary to test them at that age – an age of general emotional fragility – and that pupils can often pick up on the stress of adults, including teachers under pressure.

Zak, a member of the Youth Panel at YoungMinds, works closely with children at Sebright Primary School, in Hackney, East London, as a near-peer learning mentor and role model undertaking City Year UK’s Leadership Development Programme. He believes that compulsory testing for 7 and 11-year-olds doesn’t do justice to capturing the capability of his mentees and was personally excited to hear Jeremy Corbyn’s plans to scrap SATs for good, while consulting parents and teachers for an alternative system of assessment and trusting teachers’ overall evaluation of their students in place of a dogmatic, test-driven system.

Reflecting on his experience, he said: “Our school thankfully recognises the holistic needs of children and facilitates our work developing pupils’ wellbeing and sociability, in turn impacting positively in classroom interventions.

But the rigorous culture of testing doesn’t let children be children. Even a more able Year 6 pupil this week shyly confided in me that our daily morning chats and playground games together is solely what she looked forward to everyday during the pressure of SATs preparations.

And while I understand that SATs are used to hold schools to account in league tables, many teachers say that the results don’t tell them anything they didn’t already know about their students’ abilities. Not only that, but one thing is for sure: the life skills, ingenious creativity and unique personality of each and every child I work with could never be relayed though a test score.”

Pupil and teacher wellbeing is closely linked 

Further research shows that teachers are also under constant pressure to perform, often without the resources and support needed to do their job. These challenges include managing a demanding workload, dealing with behavioural problems and meeting targets relating to pupil attainment – all of which are taking a toll on their mental health and wellbeing.  This is backed by last year’s Teacher Wellbeing Index which highlighted a “stress epidemic” and rising mental health issues within the teaching profession – and this is heightened during exam season.

Moreover, pupil and teacher wellbeing can be, and is often closely linked, and this is something we’ve seen in the schools we’ve worked in. Children can often pick up on the stress of adults which affects their own confidence and motivation in school.

Conversely, teachers who are dealing with their own challenges can often feel overstretched in dealing with challenges such as classroom misbehaviour, or pressure to identify mental health issues in pupils, which means early intervention isn’t always possible. To this point, the National Union of Teachers revealed that a staggering 93% of teachers agreed that their stress levels “sometimes impact” on the way they interact with pupils.

We need a whole-school approach to wellbeing  

Whether you’re an advocate of modular or linear assessment, abolishing or retaining SATs, many of us will agree that exams are inherently stressful. It has been argued, however, that exams in some ways provide an ideal opportunity for pupils to develop resilience, learn how to cope with challenge and prepare them for later life. The key issue is “whether students feel supported”, chair of Ofqual, Roger Taylor has claimed.

Roz Head, former Motivate to Educate practitioner, highlighted the importance of helping pupils acknowledge their stress and supporting them in the run-up to exams. “I think the most important message is that no emotion is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it’s what you do with it that counts. Letting a child know that we all feel worried, angry or sad sometimes and letting them accept these feelings without judgement is a real gift.”

Specifically, Roz had seen the difference it made in supporting and engaging teachers and parents, in understanding the wider context, getting to the ground root of the issue and achieving better outcomes for everyone. What’s more, by giving teachers and parents the space and time to focus on their own wellbeing, she witnessed a positive correlation on the wellbeing of pupils. In the case of Senel and Chelsey, who took part in M2E, we can also see a clear link between wellbeing and higher academic attainment.

Teachers have also seen the impact that joined-up, wraparound support brings to the whole school community, from intensive programmes for pupils, practical and therapeutic guidance for parents to wellbeing care for school staff. Kirstie Barrett, Head of Harrington Hill Primary, said: “Kineara’s success in building trust is very unique. They attend community events regularly, join Parent/Teacher Consultation evenings, and attend meetings between staff and parents when there is a SEND or pastoral need or just a benefit in doing so, so they are visible and approachable to the whole community.”

Whilst the education system ought to give greater prominence to wellbeing in education, schools also have a vital role in creating supportive and inclusive environments where there are opportunities for pupils to overcome challenges, but also to ask for help. And with evidence pointing to both a pupil and teacher mental health crisis, a joined up, whole-school support approach is needed now more than ever.

Find out more about our education services.

Posted by kineara in Community, Education, Latest, Research