It’s probably no coincidence that National Stress Awareness Month (April) falls right before most children and young people face their end of year exams. Whether you’re sitting your first ever SAT test or working towards the A-Levels that will secure your place at university, the pressure that an exam brings is acute. Now, some thrive under this style of pressure and have the ability to craft an appropriate study environment which helps them succeed. Others, however, are not so lucky and they risk an overwhelming level of stress.
Children who come from more troubled backgrounds or have a more complicated family situation are set at a slight disadvantage when it comes to exam season. Their home environment may be too traumatic to be a conducive place for study due to violence, substance abuse, poverty or neglect; or they could face more responsibilities than their classmates, when acting as carer to an ill or disabled family member. No matter the cause, there are countless children and young people whose academic journey is made naturally harder by their personal circumstances. We all preach the value in children embracing their individuality, and yet, when it comes to academia, everyone is judged in the same ways. We all face the same exams. It’s no wonder then that such a high portion of children experience extreme stress levels as a result of exam season.
Vulnerable children who inhabit the world of social work can come from a variety of backgrounds, but the main thing in common is that they are in need of support. Should this support be lacking, they will face a variety of consequences, the most common being poor performance at school. Whether it’s due to a loss in the family or being abused at home, children are not able to fully focus on their scholarly commitments if there is an existing level of stress in their lives. This sets the scene for an uneven playing field within the classroom. Those children from stable and safe backgrounds have not only the facilities but also the positive mental health to embrace challenges at school, college or (eventually) university; while the children and young people we come into contact with, face a steeper climb to the same opportunities.
Their backgrounds will inevitably place a higher level of stress on them when it comes around to exam season. After all, you’re likely to be more stressed about a test if you feel unprepared, if you’re worrying about other issues or if this one test is representative of your route out of a bad situation. There’s also the societal pressure placed on disadvantaged children in regards to how they will be viewed by their peers. Children can be unkind, and if a child is at risk of being bullied to begin with (because they are in care, are disabled or any variety of reasons); then there is an additional level of stress, stemming from the fear of not wanting to seem “stupid”.
Stress is a concern for young people and children because of the impact it can have on their overall mental health. Experiencing too much pressure because of educational exams will negatively affect the mental health of young people, which will then go on to put their futures and lives at risk. Young people contacting Childline reported that exam stress led to:
- depression and anxiety
- panic attacks
- low self-esteem
- self-harming and suicidal thoughts
- worsening of pre-existing mental health conditions
The problem with this additional stress is that it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Children who are overly stressed during key exams because of non-academic issues are less likely to perform well in those exams, since stress can reduce your ability to focus during a test and affect your ability to retain key information. Subsequently, poor results affect the opportunities available to these children, whether it is continuing with a subject they’re passionate about, going to a more prestigious university or even just staying in school at all. The ripple on effects can then be severe, which leads them to remain in a negative situation – reinforcing the societal disadvantage that academia is meant to rescue them from.
It can be tough to differentiate natural, healthy levels of stress during exam season from more concerning levels; after all, if a child is showing stress, then it could just mean they take academic pressure seriously and value a good education. However, it’s important to note some of the signs that can indicate your child (or a child you are working with) is feeling the pressure too much and is in need of intervention. These are just some of the possible effects of extreme stress:
- Trouble concentrating and completing schoolwork
- Increased aggression
- Hyperactive behaviour
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Eating or sleeping disorders
- Overreactions to minor problems
Understanding the issues at hand aside, the main question on everyone’s lips should be how to we change things? How can we ensure that every child has equal opportunities when it comes to their academic endeavours? We should never underestimate the value of achieving a good education. After all, it can open doors that were previously closed to vulnerable people, through scholarships or allow them to vie for more prestigious careers – thereby helping to break the cycle of poverty that is so common. It seems like such an obvious cause to champion, to help children and young people have the same chances at successful and fulfilling futures. But we are continuously held back by this inherent inequality embedded into our educational system. The importance placed on specific exams raises the stakes so much, in particular for vulnerable children, and paves the way for them to experience inordinate amounts of stress. Every child has the potential to achieve great things, but if we are marking those who face external woes in exactly the same way as those with an easier, more supportive and privileged background then we will never be able to prove this. More needs to be done to re-evaluate the pastoral care given at schools to relieve exam stress, but also to the foundations of how we judge a child’s intelligence or potential. Should one exam (where some children approach it with a disadvantage that is irrelevant to their academic knowledge) hold such a power? How can we rework the system to ensure a fair chance for all, and break the cycle once and for all?
While you're here...
A key way to help break the self-fulfilling prophecy of disadvantage and vulnerability is to ensure those in need have the necessary toold to process their struggles in a healthy manner. One Stop Social hosts a number of resources to help children and young people cope with their stress and other mental health issues, which can develop good practice across our social work community.