During the months of May and June, students of all ages face one of the most stressful times of the year: exam season. This can be a particularly difficult time for all students, as for the last two years they have been subject to more flexible assessment mechanisms as a result of the health crisis.
There is no doubt that exam anxiety is one of the reasons teenagers need more emotional support, both from family and school. As Carol Coleman, Director of Student Support at The British School of Barcelona, explains: ‘stress arises when a combination of internal and external pressures exceeds the individual’s resources to cope with the situation.’ This imbalance can lead to feelings of emotional blockage, insecurity, excessive worry, negative thoughts, or anxiety, among others. In order to avoid this, Carol points out that ‘we must equip students from a young age with the necessary resources to cope with stressful situations.’ She also adds that ‘teaching them the mechanisms to deal with a stressful situation or in which they may feel anxious is essential. It is a protective factor that will protect their emotional stability.’
This preventive tools kit is what makes up the skill called resilience, known as the ability of people to adapt to an adverse situation, to better withstand pressure and, consequently, to maintain a positive attitude and to overcome a difficult situation.
Resilience: Turning Stress into Motivation
Carol explains that we should not always think of stress as something negative. ‘Stress can provide motivation and energy for learning and performance. In the right dose it can enhance concentration, focus and acquisition of a new skills and knowledge. However, lack of concentration, irritability, or acting out are all signs that we might see when the levels of stress have moved over into the too high level.’
It is in these cases when resilience becomes our ally to help us prevent negative emotional stress and learn how to turn a difficult situation into an opportunity to improve and move into the future. Resilience is not an innate skill, however: it needs to be included into the curriculum for all educational stages. ‘The key is addressing our emotions from an early age; student’s resilience needs to be embedded in their day to day, just as with any other learning strategy. The goal is that the student learns how to manage their stress levels so that they can become a positive factor that can drive their studies without compromising their learning and performance.‘
Strategies to Manage Exam Anxiety
No that the exam season is getting closer, our Stdent Support department decided to hold a Thematic Week dedicated to Resilience in order to raise awareness among students and their families about the importance of developing a resilient mind. Our experts propose we develop self-management strategies, as well as a cognitive-behavioural therapy approach, to manage emotional responses:
- Preventive strategies. Carol explains how activities such as yoga, meditation and mindfulness are useful in order to prevent stress as long as they are practiced consistently and regularly, not as a one-off workshop or activity for the student to take part in. Similarly, other activities such as deep belly breathing or sensory regulation are also effective strategies as long as we have previously trained our brain to know what we should be focusing on.
- Intervention strategies. When our ability to cope with a situation that overwhelms us is compromised, there is only room to intervene, that is to implement strategies to bring the system back to a state of calmness. Again, intervention strategies only work if they have been practised earlier on. ‘Just telling a student to take a deep breath when stressed just doesn’t work. Routines and stability are essential to reduce stress, so when your child is showing signs of anxiety because they are preparing for an exam, make sure that you stick to your familiar routines and try not to spring unexpected events on them.’
- Helping them express their emotions. When dealing with a high-pressure situation, we recommend to encourage a free-flowing conversation when the young person is ready and willing to talk, thus avoiding being intrusive. ‘Being open and consistently available, without pushing the conversation at the wrong time, is the best approach, since children and young people often find it easier to talk while doing another activity, such as drawing or going for a walk.’ We must also avoid to try reassuring children and helping find solutions to make them feel better. It is better to spend time listening to them, ask them questions, and show an interest in viewing things from their perspective, being accepting of their worry, anger or sadness. ‘It ‘s important to recognise that these kinds of feelings are common and understandable. Explain that, although the physical feelings we experience in our bodies when we are anxious can be unpleasant, they are normal.’
- Emphasising confidence in the young person’s ability to cope. The final goal is to explore alternative ways of looking at things that might help to put worries into perspective and, in turn, result in less anxiety-provoking conclusions. It is important to engage them to think about different strategies to cope with a given situation, improving their self-esteem and resilience in the face of adversity.
- Modelling a calm and measured response. Young people are specially sensitive to their surroundings; if they notice that others around them are anxious, they will watch their behaviour to work out whether they too should feel anxious themselves. ‘It is important to remain calm on the outside even in the most stressful situations. This will help to reassure young people that even the most difficult situations are manageable.’
- Resilience – Managing Exam Anxiety Webinars for Parents (avaialble in the Hub of Cognita Connect – for BSB parents only)