SFE Adviser Marsha Blissett discusses academic stress and how school staff can help to prevent and combat it
It’s normal to feel some stress around exam and revision time.
In fact, two thirds of eight to 17-year-olds surveyed in 2020 said they felt most stressed about homework and/or exams – ahead of worrying about what other people think of them and bullying.
While exam stress can make us feel anxious or depressed, it’s nothing to be scared of. It’s a normal reaction to what’s going on.
Some people even need a little stress to get them motivated.
It’s about knowing what works for us before we get to a point where we feel overwhelmed.
What is academic stress?
Academic stress is the feeling of being overwhelmed by schoolwork, exams, and the pressure to succeed.
It’s normal to feel some stress around exam and revision time, but for some people, the level of stress can become too much. This can lead to anxiety and depression.
When we experience stress, our brains release hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones help us react to the perceived threat by providing us with a burst of energy and sharpening our focus.
However, if the stress becomes excessive or is experienced for too long a period, then it can lead to a disruption of this brain chemistry balance. This can cause changes in the levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine which are responsible for regulating moods and emotions.
As stress continues over time, it can cause an increase in anxiety levels as well as leading to physical symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, digestive disturbances and muscle tension.
Signs that a child is experiencing academic stress:
There are a number of signs that a child may be experiencing academic stress:
- They seem unusually quiet or withdrawn.
- They’re not eating as well as usual or they’re comfort eating.
- They’re not sleeping well – either they can’t get to sleep, or they wake up early and can’t get back to sleep.
- They seem tearful or irritable.
- They seem listless or lacking in energy – they may also complain of headaches or stomach aches.
- They seem distracted or unable to concentrate on their work.
- They start avoiding school or skipping classes altogether.
If a child is showing any of these signs, it’s important to talk to them about how they’re feeling. Try to find out what’s causing the stress and see if there’s anything you can do to help.
Causes of academic stress:
There are many things that can cause academic stress.
For some children, it may be the pressure to succeed. For others, it may be worries about not being able to keep up with their friends or classmates. It could also be due to problems at home, such as family illness or relationship difficulties. Some children may find school itself stressful – for example, because they’re being bullied.
For some children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), the structure and pace of lessons may be too much for them to cope with. Children who have English as an additional language (EAL) may find the demands of learning English while keeping up with the rest of their work very challenging indeed.
How can education settings help?
- Promote a healthy work-life balance – encourage children and young people not to work too late into the night or at weekends so they have time for other activities they enjoy outside of school; set realistic deadlines for homework so it doesn’t build up; provide opportunities for physical activity during the day so children have time to let off steam; make sure there are breaks between classes so children have time to relax; avoid scheduling tests and exams too close together
- Help children and young people develop good study habits – provide advice on how best to revise; offer guidance on effective note-taking; teach them how best to use technology in their studies
- Encourage positive thinking – help children see failure as an opportunity to learn rather than something negative; praise effort as well as achievement
- Promote good mental health – ensure there is someone available for children and young people who need someone to talk to about how they’re feeling; signpost them towards external support if necessary
- Help parents/carers support their child – invite them into school so they can see first-hand what their child is working on; give them advice on how best they can support their child at home
- Tackle bullying – provide support for victims of bullying; raise awareness among all pupils about what constitutes bullying behaviour; take firm action against anyone who is found bullying others
Although it’s normal for children to feel some level of stress during exam season, it’s important to be aware of the signs that a child is struggling to cope.
If you’re concerned that a child is experiencing academic stress, talk to them about how they’re feeling and see if there’s anything you can do together to help relieve the pressure they’re under.
Services For Education offer a range of courses aimed at developing staff members’ understanding of children’s mental and emotional health – browse available courses here.
About the Author
Marsha Blissett - Adviser, Former Services For Education
Marsha has over 18 years’ experience of teaching and senior leadership in schools within the West Midlands. She is passionate about the power of education to create knowledge, build confidence, and break down barriers to opportunity. She works with senior leaders, middle leaders, and governors to develop capacity and bring about rapid improvement through supporting them in effective self-evaluation, evaluating the impact of the curriculum and conducting quality assurance across the school.
Her particular areas of focus are Personal Development and Culture and Ethos, including Safeguarding.
Marsha works closely with SEND – the platinum thread, providing advice and guidance on the most effective ways to promote desirable outcomes. She helps to develop an understanding of best practices and processes, as well as appropriate tools and resources.
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