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How do exams contribute to mental health issues?
As exams loom closer, and competition gets harder, your child is bombarded on all sides by stress. Some of us remember childhood fondly but the reality for a modern-day teen undertaking GCSE’s is that the pressure has never been higher. With the new 9-1 grading system, social media distractions and the nation’s eye watching their every move, what can you do to help your child navigate this difficult time?
As a parent, understand that your child is now a guinea pig for a new system that was designed to help UK education compete with other leading countries. However, the system wasn’t designed to benefit everyone and focuses heavily on the top percentage of the country. Students who fall in the middle band can find themselves sinking under a sea of misinformation and even the genuine unknown. For those who seek a grade 4 or 5, the boundaries can seem to change at a given moment and these students are desperately trying to find their feet in a world where the ground seems to shift beneath them. All this can lead to a feeling of hopelessness and can lead to serious academic issues such as being unable to revise in the run-up to a crucial exam.
The charity Young Minds states that ‘1 in 10 children have a diagnosable mental health disorder – that’s roughly 3 children in every classroom’. These can range from anxiety and depression all the way to suicidal tendencies. In education, and as parents, it’s essential that we take into consideration how our presence can either help or hinder a child’s development.
Firstly, misconceptions. Mental health is an issue that has sat in the corner of a dark room for a long time, especially in children since we have an image of them that says they should be able to shake off anything. Even if your child is the perfect A* (or should I say Grade 9?) student, plays instruments, is athletic, makes all your family members seethe with jealousy and everything else – if they say they aren’t feeling well, believe them.
How to help your child handle mental health issues at exam time
The first tool in your arsenal as a parent is communication and attention to detail. The greatest hurdle in mental health can be admitting there’s a problem. No one wants to believe there’s an issue they can’t personally overcome, and it’s noted from Young Minds that ‘3 in 4 children with a diagnosable mental health condition do not get access to the support that they need.’ As their parent, you could be the difference between your child getting through this or cracking under the pressure.
If you find yourself in a position where your child feels overwhelmed or unsure, give them time to feel better. Don’t expect a quick fix or a snap of the fingers alongside a ‘get your life together’ speech to do much. The best approach is a structured, well supported road to getting back on track. As a parent, use your authority to give them the building blocks they need to take control of their own life. Most students feel that exams and education is often beyond their own control, making them feel powerless and therefore unable to change their circumstances.
For students dealing with stress and anxiety, the NHS Choices website has a variety of suggestions. Most helpful is a structured but realistic revision schedule. Make sure both you and your child knows their exam board and the dates of their exams early in the year. This means they won’t be left a month before 5 exams realising they don’t have time to revise for any of them. As their parent, help them stick to it. For a teenager there are plenty of distractions. Set up an agreement with them where during these times you take their phone for a while, you check in to make sure they’re taking appropriate breaks or even get involved in making the breaks more fun. Sometimes the motivation to keep going can come from someone taking an active interest in helping them rather than passively accepting they may or may not be revising. The greatest enemy to progress is the passive parent.
Don’t let them over work themselves; a break every 45 to 60 minutes is essential. Anxiety can come from feeling there’s too much to do and the impulse to speed through things as quickly as possible won’t help your child. Put aside a work area for them, somewhere they won’t be disturbed but they can spread out a little, get comfortable and can leave their work there when it’s time for a break. Every child works differently so don’t argue with your child if they want to listen to some music or have background ambience to help them through. Remember you’re not just there to ask, ‘how much have you done?’ every few hours; you’re there to care about your child.
Beyond that, be positive in your word choice. Let them know you’re on their side and there’s always time for them to come away from the work if they need to. Good tactics can be some brief physical exercise (start a work out together), creative projects or even just breathing exercises. Those with anxiety can benefit massively from taking control of their own breathing and slowing their heart rate. Students need time to see their life isn’t all about the exam and that their self-worth isn’t directly linked to their grades. You want them to do the best that they can but for some students, that won’t be in an exam.
How to reassure your child if they are anxious about their exam results
If your child isn’t good at taking exams – whether because of anxiety or other issues – this doesn’t make them a bad student. Exams are memory games. Not everyone is good at that. If you feel this is something your child will struggle with, search out past papers to make them familiar with what they’ll see on the day. It’s a massive trade ‘secret’ that questions are repeated over the years or only slightly re-worded. Unfortunately, there aren’t many papers for the 9-1 because of how new it is but past papers are still valuable.
Ultimately, help your child find a structure that will break down their workload and then help them stay motivated. Let them know you see them as more than a grade. Perhaps even more importantly, set them up for life with the idea that their problems don’t define them. Going on from GCSE, no matter what issues your child faced or will face, send them out into the world with the confidence that they can do this.