‘Stress’ is making headlines this month. As this April (2019) marks the 27th annual Stress Awareness Month, the media has turned its attention to the key stage 1 and 2 children facing their SATs exams in the coming weeks. Stress is no longer associated with adults and teens only, as evidence of anxiety and panic attacks in young children is growing. An interesting article published recently by the Guardian reported that 82% of school leaders had seen increases in mental health issues in primary school pupils around the time of their exams. It was saddening to read that in the last few years, 76% witnessed the fear of academic failure by their pupils, and 55% observed depression.
Stress has become such a big issue for these children, resulting in parents now trying to withdraw their children from taking the exams. Advocates of the primary school SATs believe that sitting exams at an early age can help children develop tools for coping with stress and pressure, preparing them for the rest of their school career. But with reports of damaged self-esteem, loss of appetite and even children losing their eyelashes, this level of pressure can be too much for some.
The impact of exam stress on primary school children can be multifold, ranging from physical and behavioural to mental and emotional. A study by Crisan and Copaci in 2015 found a negative relationship between test anxiety and academic performance in primary school age. Pupils who are considered as high achievers often feel the need to compare themselves with others and pupils who struggle with school work felt worried about receiving low scores. This means that children of all academic levels can be negatively impacted by test stress, and not necessarily show what they are capable of.
Beyond educational outcomes, test anxiety is largely manifesting as mental and emotional wellbeing issues. In the build-up to exams, children often suffer from negative emotions related to their self-worth, fearing they will let their family, friends and teachers down if they don’t achieve a certain grade. Even very young children are astute to the surrounding pressures, so the burden on teachers and parents for children to perform well are often transmitted unintentionally, adding to the child's worry of making others proud. Another study into SAT-related anxiety by Reay and William in 1999 illustrated the perspective of a year six pupil, who said: “if you’re no good at spellings and times table, you don’t get those (levels; 4 or 5) and so you’re a nothing”. The blow of not achieving certain scores can be truly devastating to a child aged ten to eleven years, self-confidence and worth. If not addressed early on, these complexities can relate to failure or worry of failure, and self-efficacy can continue into adolescence and adulthood.
The mental and emotional effects of stress can also lead to physical and behavioural symptoms, such as lack of sleep, not being able or not wanting to eat, muscle tightening and trembling, and being unable to concentrate. The ‘Exam Factories’ report described situations where children didn’t want to attend school anymore, afraid of having to take more tests or collect their test results, and other children felt sick or were in tears in the lead up to SATs results. Some children even experienced migraines or had to take medication to deal with the stress, which could potentially lead to long term mental health problems.
The symptoms of test stress and anxiety are diverse, and so is each child’s coping mechanism. The way a child manages stress is often cognitively-mediated, where negative relationships with pressure can be a result of avoidance, negative cognitive judgments or unhelpful cognitive beliefs. To help a child develop more effective ways of dealing with stress, we must reverse these cognitive processes. Children must be inspired to adopt positive mindsets and self-evaluations - even small gestures or words of encouragement can go a long way in achieving this. They must overcome the unhelpful and discouraging voices in their heads that train their brains to magnify events, making them worry more than necessary and raising their levels of anxiety. In the same way, adults often require time to re-evaluate their thought processes to rid or appropriately address negative information and feelings, young children can also benefit from meditation and mindfulness to change their stress-inducing cognitive processes.
In the build-up to exams, helping children manage their stress levels effectively is imperative. TPC's Stress Buster Workshop is specifically designed to help young children cultivate positive attitudes and outlooks, specifically focusing on instilling confidence and self-belief as they head into the SATs season. The workshop also empowers children to calm themselves using meditative practices, giving them the tools and techniques to self-soothe, which they can take away with them for future use.
Find out more about the Stress Buster Workshop by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We book up fast, so if your interested book in advance.
Here is what children have said about our Stress Buster Sessions;
"The session was really helpful because at first, I was feeling really worried and depressed but now I believe in myself and I feel confident".
"I think it helped me massively with my confidence".
"I learnt if I believe in myself I can achieve anything".