We should not underestimate the impact that examination periods can have on our students. For many of them, these exams may feel as though they represent the culmination of 13 years or more of study. ‘Everything’, they will tell you, ‘hangs on how I perform in this exam.’ If it were true, it would be truly daunting. Maybe as an adult, you remember feeling similarly daunted, or even overwhelmed.
Of course, adulthood soon tells us that it is not true: everything does not hang on this one exam, this one moment in time, for at least two reasons. Firstly, we all know someone that was highly successful at school, but whose life went off the rails later. Examination success is no guarantee of a happy or successful life. Secondly, we all know someone that did terribly in exams, but went on to become ridiculously successful in life. People like this reveal the lie to the students’ belief that ‘everything hangs on this’. It is simply and demonstrably, not true.
However, the students believe it is true, so that is all that matters. In some of their minds, this is the highest of high-stake moments. No matter how much we may reassure them to the contrary they will feel that pressure. Their minds will be full of concern and their thoughts constricted by fear of messing up.
Of course, this is not the only time in their lives that they may have experienced this sort of pressure or daunting feelings. The lives of our youngsters nowadays are filled with attacks on self-esteem or body image, moments of peer pressure or outside influence that threaten their peace of mind and ability to make good choices. Indeed, the internet can provide many more opportunities for our children to be influenced, persuaded or fooled into following the crowd or bowing to pressure to make choices that we would never want for them. So what can we do to help?
Well first and foremost, whether we are parents or teachers, as caring, responsible adults we should seek to safeguard our children. That means, amongst other things, being vigilant for signs of stress or behaviour that are not typical for our child. However, of equal importance there are two further steps that we can take to help our children, not only during exam time, but in fact at any and every time in their lives.
Firstly, we can help them by not only listening to them, but really hearing what they are trying to tell us. They may be telling us in obvious ways, such as telling us how they feel. Or they may be telling us how they feel in less obvious ways, such as through their behaviour, their mood or their body language. Whatever the case, as parents and teachers, we want to not only listen to them, but to truly hear what they are telling us. Not judge them, maybe not even advise. Just give them a means to express what is on their mind.
Secondly, we can safeguard our children by turning down the dial on the pressure. We are all familiar with the phrase, ‘worrying about it never helps’, and whilst we want to be attentive to the importance of particular moments or events in our children’s lives, we must also recognise that we have an important part to play in not only helping them to get a sense of perspective, but also to recognise that they will perform better, make better decisions and choices, if they are able to think clearly and calmly. Very often we are one of the main sources of pressure, whether deliberately or inadvertently, so we must be very self-aware of anything that we do to actually contribute to the sense of pressure, isolation, expectation or simply not being heard.
We want all our children to work hard, think clearly, stay cool, be calm and collected and make the most of their considerable talent, navigating the challenges that lie ahead of them with a sense of relaxed, focused, clear thinking. So much of that is down to them, but so much of their ability to achieve that is influenced by our role modelling. So, it turns out, perhaps, that your own exam days aren’t as far behind you as you thought! I wish you well.
Dr Neil Hopkin FRSA, Principal