SATs: Protecting pupil wellbeing

Written by: Laura Ralph | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As another year begins, Laura Ralph looks at how schools might support those pupils who are facing SATs this year and who might soon begin to feel the pressure around their assessments

As the academic cycle begins for another year, it could be a good time to reflect on pupil wellbeing and whether there is any further support your school could offer around assessment periods for the 2017/18 academic period.

Exams can be a source of worry and expectation for both pupils and teachers alike, so it’s important that schools are promoting positivity and wellbeing during assessment time as well as throughout the year.

Findings from The Key’s 2017 State of Education survey, reveal that more than four in five (82 per cent) primary school leaders see signs of mental health issues increase among their pupils during exam periods. School leaders also report having seen a rise in fear of academic failure among their pupils over the last two years.

While many schools work with parents and have staff members as mentors to support pupil wellbeing throughout the year, extra measures can be helpful. Below we provide some tips on strategies and resources to help you boost support for pupils.

Talk about stress

We spoke to Brenda McHugh, co-director of the Anna Freud Centre’s Mental Health in Schools programme, about how you can talk to pupils about exam stress. She suggested explaining to older pupils what stress can look like and feel like, so that they are more able to recognise the symptoms of stress and prevent escalation. Symptoms to be aware of might include tiredness, headaches, feeling sick, dizzy or fainting

Another strategy is to encourage pupils to talk to each other about exam worries. Dr Fiona Pienaar, head of clinical services at the charity Place2Be, says “two heads are better than one”, and if pupils know that others in their class are likely to be feeling the same as them, they may feel less isolated.

You could set up a mentoring system, either with designated staff mentors or perhaps through sessions with local year 7 pupils. This extends the support network for pupils and provides a dedicated person they know they can turn to. School leaders may wish to talk about how they themselves manage stressful situations, to act as role models in school. Pupils are likely to pick up on how their teachers are responding to the pressures of the exam period, so ensure that your staff are taking time out over breaks and lunchtimes to recover.

Boost self-esteem

One expert in school leadership, who is also the trustee of a mental health charity, explained to us that boosting self-esteem is key to helping pupils manage stress during exams. Make sure that teachers take time to talk to pupils about what they are good at and enjoy – and encourage pupils to make time for this.

You could put aside a slot in the school timetable for activities which build up pupils’ self-belief. This could include light-hearted games involving teamwork and creative tasks.

You might also consider altering your PSHE provision, or running an inspiring assembly gives pupils tips on managing exam worries and explains who to talk to if they’re feeling low. Childline has produced guidance on replacing negative thoughts with positive internal messages, and visualising the exam going well.

Help parents to support their child

If pupils receive support both at home and at school they are likely to feel more reassured. An anxious parent may cause further stress for a pupil already feeling under pressure. School leaders can help by running parent workshops on wellbeing, or providing information on how the exam season works in the school.

A wellbeing workshop with parents could involve a discussion about what to say and what to avoid saying so as not to add to the pressure pupils are experiencing. You might also encourage parents to help their child make a manageable plan to tackle workload, and cover lifestyle tips such as diet and exercise. You could also direct parents to resources such as the BBC, who give advice on how to help your child through exams.

Provide activities and resources for pupils

We have spoken to many school leaders who recommend various ways for schools to help pupils relieve stress. Suggestions include setting up a calm, quiet space in school, the creative use of music and arts for relaxation, and time spent outdoors being active. One former headteacher suggested running wind-down sessions involving art or PE post-exams.

There are resources available online for pupils offering advice for wellbeing over the exam period, such as Childline’s guidance pack for pupils on beating exam stress and planning revision.

The NHS has also published information for parents and carers on recognising and easing young people’s exam stress, and when they should see a GP about the issue. 

  • Laura Ralph is a researcher at The Key, which provides impartial leadership and management support to almost half the schools in England.

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