How can schools and parents work together to combat stress & anxiety amongst children?

With end of year exam season approaching, discussions have turned once again to the level of stress students are put under to perform well in these exams. With the intensity of the tests increasing each year, it’s safe to say that the levels of stress are on the rise for these young minds too. But is this stress a natural motivator, or are we pushing students to the point of toxic stress levels that could cause mental health problems to develop?

According to a recent report by Tes Global, support company Childline delivered 2,795 counselling sessions for exam stress between 2018 and 2019. One third of these sessions took place during the exam season months. The most common age for students to seek this help was between 15 and 16, with girls five times more likely to ask for help than boys. But should we be aiming to help children at a younger age, to help them cope with the pressures that exams bring?

In this article, we explore the difference in healthy stress and unhealthy stress, how our current exam system may well be aggravating stress levels, as well as the link between stress and mental health conditions and how the two relate to each other.


The difference between healthy stress, toxic stress, and mental health conditions

Although the terms ‘stress’ and ‘anxiety’ are often used interchangeably, they are very different medically.

Stress is a natural response to present threats. Whether this is pressure at work, home, or school, this current pressure causes adrenaline to be released and cause a feeling of stress. This is a natural reaction in a short-term scenario.

However, too much stress or having the chemical adrenaline linger in the bloodstream for too long can cause anxiety to develop. Anxiety brings a whole host of symptoms with it, including sickness, panic attacks, and dizziness. Anxiety continues to pressure a person long after the pressure-causing event has gone. This can be caused by an internal chemical imbalance, hence the prolonged effects even without a current, identifiable event causing the feelings. This in and of itself can prove upsetting for an individual with anxiety, as they feel there’s no observable reason for them to feel like this.

In short, stress is a response to an immediate, present threat or pressure. Anxiety is usually longer lasting, and often deals with concerns of the future; it is a response to hypothetical, potential pressures to come. Where stress is a response to a currently occurring issue, anxiety has been considered as an intolerance for uncertainty.

When to embrace stress

Healthy stress is temporary, and it can indeed be beneficial. It is born out of our fight-or-flight instinct, where present threats or pressures took the form of predators more than academic performance!

Feeling stressed before an exam is normal. The adrenaline is all part of the body and brain getting ready to perform. It is important that students are aware that a little stress is nothing to fear. It’s normal, and it’s helpful. With a healthy, manageable level of stress, people often perform well.

Of course, the key element here is ‘manageable’. When this healthy burst of stress builds and spirals out of control, affecting areas of life outside of the exam hall, then it most certainly isn’t helpful, nor is it healthy. If a student finds themselves feeling stressed outside the exam hall, and that that stress is impacting home life or classroom behaviour, it’s time to look at the issue from the viewpoint of anxiety.

When to combat anxiety

Anxiety’s damage comes in how it lingers and gets tangled into everything. Often, people suffering from anxiety note that little to nothing seems enjoyable anymore, as there’s something in everything they do that makes them worry more or their feelings of anxiety are so overwhelming that they cannot focus on anything else. Simply ‘taking their mind off it’ isn’t possible.

A jittery feeling and nerves before an exam are one thing. But when that worry lingers long after you’ve left the exam hall and starts to extend out into future ‘what if’ scenarios, that’s when anxiety could be developing. Often, anxiety is characterised as a feeling of ‘doom’ in these future worries. The worst-case scenario is, in the throes of anxiety, suddenly a fact rather than a hypothetical. With this in mind, how can schools provide for students in order to ensure stress remains at healthy, short bursts and not a lingering, damaging, and often harmful condition?

What schools can do

Schools can provide a number of methods to help their students in the run up to their exams:

  • Encourage achievement but avoid undue pressure. Particularly for high achievers, the pressure to perform perfectly in exams can be a lot to handle. These students can feel that they not only need to achieve the grade for themselves, but for their parents and teachers or they will risk letting them down. Many may feel shocked or ashamed if they gain a grade 8 in their exam when they were ‘expected’ to get a grade 9. Assure them that this top-tier grade is still that: a top-tier grade, and more than enough to see them on to future success!
  • Arrange stress-buster sessions. Learning how to handle and manage stress is a vital skill. Particularly at school, students will probably be thinking of their upcoming exams while in the classroom revising. It can feel like there’s no escape, so be the one to release that pressure valve on stress with an occasional stress-busting lesson instead of intense revision. Whether this is with a puppy-hugging day to look forward to as a special reward for working so hard, heading out to the school garden with a trowel and some compost for some relaxing plant-attending, or even a one-off lesson of stress-busting techniques like breathing exercises and mindfulness, treat stress-management as a lesson and exam technique just as vital as going over those notes and books again.
  • Remind students that exams are important, but they are not the most important thing in life. We’re not saying tell your students the exams don’t matter; of course, they do. But make sure the scale is realistic. You want, and expect, them to do their best. Achieving good results here will build a great foundation for their lives. But remind them that a failed exam will not mark them for the rest of their lives, nor will it be the defining of them

What parents can do

There are a few things parents can do if they suspect their child is suffering high levels of exam stress or full-blown anxiety:

  • Do not say ‘we just dealt with it in my day!’ When anyone has a problem, the last thing they want to hear is how someone else has it worse. A problem that is causing someone to suffer doesn’t lose value just because someone else has suffered more! In particular, no child appreciates their parent indirectly telling them that they don’t have it as hard as their parents did. Saying you, or their siblings, ‘just got on with it’ isn’t helpful at all, nor it is wholly accurate.
  • Do say positive and constructive things! By constructive, we don’t mean ‘you should study more’ or ‘your big brother studied 14 hours a day for his exams!’. Again, comparisons are not helpful; everyone studies differently. Some people take in information best in an eight-hour-study-party then a day off, where others study best in multiple 20-minute bursts with a short break in between. By all means, offer strategies you found helpful, but don’t present them as the ‘correct’ way compared to what they are already doing. Also, be sure to remind your child that while the exams are important, they are not completely life-defining; assure them that even if the exam doesn’t go well, there are so many options to re-sit or re-evaluate. One failed exam will not bring their hopes and dreams to a halt.
  • Let them vent and listen. Sometimes, you don’t need to say anything. Sometimes, we just need someone to listen to our deepest fears and worries. Let your child vent their concerns, particularly after the exam, and don’t criticise them as being over-dramatic or needless in these fears.
  • Teach them to relax between exams. Treat days out, as well as reminding them that a day off studying isn’t wrong, can go a long way to managing stress down to those healthy short bursts and not a prolonged, weeks-on-end pressure. Assure them that rest days in studying are beneficial and will actually help them retain more of what they have revised. Get them out of the house for a bit, and don’t make them feel guilty for it!
  • If you suspect your child is under too much stress or suffering from anxiety, consider medical advice. A mental health problem is, by and large, chemical in nature. It is long past due that it lost its taboo, particularly among parents and children. The brain is an organ and, like any other organ in the body, for some people it may not produce the right amount of a necessary chemical. If your child’s stomach didn’t produce the chemicals it needed to be healthy, it would be a trip to the doctor to find out what to do next. It’s no different for matters of the brain and its chemistry — if you suspect you child has a mental health problem at play when it comes to dealing with and processing stress, do not be afraid of approaching a GP.




Social Media: is there a way to strike a balance for our ever-social children?

Many UK adults rely on social media for a variety of reasons, but the audience of these platforms has shifted notably in recent years. There is an increasing number of youngsters engaging with some form of social app. While there are both positive and negative factors rooted in the idea of children on social media, it’s usually up to a parent to make the call on how and if their children should use social media. As a result, it has become a divisive topic. Let’s take a look at the perspective from both sides and evaluate whether or not there is a way to strike a balance for our ever-social children!

Social media, screen time and health concerns

One of the biggest issues with social media is the amount of time that it involves spent focusing on a screen. Many users have become aware of the impact that this can have on health. Known as ‘computer vision syndrome’, prolonged screen exposure can cause eye strain, headaches, and blurred vision. While these symptoms can be easily treated and managed, it’s important to take regular breaks from devices. Of course, distracting a child’s inquisitive eyes from the screen can be a challenge sometimes. Instead of spending rainy weekends indoors, dig out your kids waterproofs and encourage them to get out and explore nature and enjoy some fresh air.

As these devices are more accessible than ever before, kids are spending more time focused on a screen with little downtime. Studies have found evidence to support the claim that obesity is in fact linked to excessive screen time, through both inactivity and poor dietary . The evidence suggests that increased screen time could even increase the likelihood of obesity in later life. In 2017/2018, around 34.3% of children aged between 10 and 11 were overweight. As we see the continual surge in the popularity of social networks, this figure is only expected to grow.

Other health related impacts that are linked to excessive screen time include difficulty sleeping, as the light which is emitted from many of our essential digital devices can interfere with the brain’s sleep cycle, triggering insomnia.

Networking skills from a young age

It’s not all bad though. The concept of social media is to bring people together and it has evolved the way we stay in touch with both people we care about and issues in the wider world. For children, there are benefits of being a part of such networks, as it can have a positive impact in teaching them how to interact with their peers. Sites such as Kidzworld, GromSocial, and Yoursphere are all leading examples of how social media can be used to generating a useful community for kids to enjoy themselves.

The younger generation are also growing up in a highly digitised climate, so exposure to social media can actually equip them with the necessary skills for the world that they will inherit. Digital technology has arisen across all areas of life at an alarming rate, and our kids will need to be prepared for an ever-advancing world.

Relationships — a positive and negative influence

In a world before widespread access to social media, developing relationships was a process reserved for real life. However, as these networks began to emerge, they provided a new way to create new connections and relationships. Observations into children’s behaviour development as a result of social media has revealed a potential increase in a child’s ability to be empathetic. It has also highlighted an improved focus on solidifying new relationships.

Youngsters are growing up in a world where we stay in touch with friends and family by ‘liking’ and commenting on updates. However, this can lead to over-use and even a reliance on these platforms for maintaining such relationships. This can affect a child’s perception of what a real human relationship is. Contrarily, technology can be used to teach empathy, and some of the content that a child sees online can help to teach compassion to a younger audience.

The impact of social media on children can certainly be managed, and as we have explored, the technology can actually be useful for developing a wider understanding of the world and communication. 

Article provided by Muddy Puddles, a UK kids waterproofs retailer, on a mission to make childhood magic in the great outdoors.