Working as a guidance teacher in large city secondary school I am used to dealing with the ups and downs experienced by our pupils. At the moment our senior pupils are going through the annual torture of prelim exams and yet again my colleagues are remarking on the emotional fragility of many of our young people.
Exams have always been important and they have always been stressful, but it seems that the current generation of young people are less able to keep things in perspective. In an attempt to help them cope we have delivered PSD lessons on managing stress, touching on techniques such as mindfulness and relaxation. For some pupils we have had to help them to desensitise themselves to the fear of the exam hall by taking them into the room weeks ahead of the exam, letting them choose where they want to sit – usually by the door in case of nausea or tummy upset – and sitting with them whilst they get used to being there. Some can’t even make it that far and medical professionals are requesting that we provide accommodation for an increasing number of pupils to sit their exams without having to endure the stress of the ‘big hall.’ This is nothing compared to universities however, who are shipping in counsellors and setting up puppy petting rooms to help pupils manage their pre- exam nerves. Even with all of our careful planning the least little hitch is catastrophised and pupils rush home to pour out the injustice to their parents who then berate us for our shortcomings!
So why are young people so afraid of exams? In my opinion it is at least in part due to them being forced into the sausage factory model of education far too young, where during the course of their time in school some are literally assessed to death and more to depression. My daughter, a brand new primary teacher and my partner, an experienced primary head, both talk of children, who are barely out of nappies, being assessed: baseline assessed – have you met your targets? Then re-assessed – have you made adequate progress? The children at the earliest stages may not be too worried about the assessment, but their parents and teachers are and stress is contagious. Children quickly learn to associate school with tests and the fear of failure – letting parents down – which robs them of the joy of learning.
We know that early experiences have far reaching consequences. They help to form our internal working model that colours how we approach life. Early and increasingly frequent exposure to stressful circumstances that flood the body with stress hormones can only be detrimental to the well being of children and young people. We already know that play, physical activity and being in the outdoors are promoters of well being and good mental health, so lets stop trying to fatten our piglets by shutting them indoors and keeping them confined before repeatedly weighing them! Let’s re-evaluate our education system and give them the best possible start by making their early years free range.