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How to change young people’s perceptions around exams

In recent years, Australian students are increasingly foregoing year 12 exams in favour of a less stressful alternative when it comes to finishing their schooling.

This trend in High School students bowing out of their education before their final exam is brought about by a number of factors but one of the most prevalent is the increased level of stress in students in the lead up to exams. This spiked increase in stress within vulnerable young people leads to increased levels of anxiety and depression as a result.

“We know two very important things. One is that this age is the peak onset period for mood and anxiety disorders and we also have robust evidence that shows the prevalence of depression is increasing in younger people”, says Associate Professor Chris Davey from Orygen.

So what is the reason for this unwarranted increase in stress, anxiety and depression in our young people? It’s a result of the culture that is in place around final exams. Whether it be from parents placing unnecessary pressure and expectations on their children to perform, teachers setting a scene of what the future could look like for their students if they don’t achieve certain results, or even youth mental health support organisations unknowingly using negative rhetoric in their support documentation.

That last example was no joke, multiple renowned support networks like Beyond Blue have supplied students with access to resource with titles like “Surviving year 12” or Exam time = Stress time. This documents offer helpful tips, links, and practical advice yet the language used can unfortunately have an adverse affect.

Exams certainly can be challenging, certainly more so for some over others, but our language surrounding exams can have a greater impact that we care to acknowledge sometimes. In our efforts to support young people, we may be teaching them to be afraid rather than encouraging them to see exams as a positive challenge.

Cases of anxiety in High School-aged students

There are few people that would argue that adolescence is a stressful time for a lot of young people, but the severity of cases surrounding mental health in young Australians is often overlooked. It appears that in more recent years, the recorded cases of mental health issues within high school age students has increased to 1 in 4 students having serious mental health issues.

Mission Australia’s survey relies on self-reports of young people aged 15-19. The 2018 survey also showed young people’s main concerns were coping with stress (43%) and school (34%). In another survey conducted by mental-health organisation ReachOut, 65.1% of youth reported worrying levels of exam stress in 2018, compared to 51.2% in 2017.

It is worth noting that a lot of the numbers that deem an increase in stress-induced mental health problems in young people may very well be affected by factors such as an increase in population size, more effective measuring tools in circulation, greater public awareness of mental health issues, self-diagnosed students blurring actual statistics and so on. While these factors could very well be valid in arguing that an increase in anxiety and depression within students around exams is not accurate, this still does not discount the fact that there is an on-going annual intake of year 12 students that will experience an overwhelming task during a vulnerable developmental period of their lives.

We can all play our part in taking the edge off for exam time for our young people.

Perception is everything

If we can help our students to see exams not as a daunting undertaking but a positive challenge, the end results are almost guaranteed to be positively increased.

In psychology, appraisal theory submits that our emotional response to an event is determined by our evaluation, or appraisal, of it. Knowing what our appraisal is of a situation helps us determine if it is a threat, if we have sufficient resources to deal with it and, ultimately, if something harmful or bad will happen to us.

In a 2016 US study of appraisals, students in one group were told emotional arousal before an exam was normal and would better help them face a challenge. Another group, the control group, wasn’t provided with any strategies.

Despite all students sitting the exam, researchers found the first group experienced less anxiety and performed better than the second group. They argued the reduced stress was due to the first group appraising their elevated heart rates and other anxiety signs as functional, rather than threatening. So this showed it was the appraisal of students’ feelings that determined how stressed they actually were rather than the event itself.

Appraisals are influenced by the things we value and what we believe to be at stake. Exams might be appraised as “stressful” because youth perceive them as a threat to their future, such as their ability to get a job.

In some cases, exams can be a threat to students’ self-worth. Self-worth is the belief our life has value and is a strong predictor of well-being. In a young person’s world, there world up until now has been their education, so it is unfortunately understandable that some students place their self-worth within their academic success. This is obviously misguided and flawed thinking, yet there is often no other voice in these young people’s lives that helps them to see otherwise, resulting in perceptions of exams and academic measures as threatening.

Young people need challenges

Challenges are an essential and normal part of our development, as they help us to form resilience within our character. Much like developing an immunity to a disease, resistance to infections doesn’t come from avoiding all contact with germs. On the contrary, avoidance is likely to increase vulnerability rather than promote resilience. This parallels with young people and challenges such as exams, as we need them to participate in these challenges in order to overcome them and develop stronger mental fortitude.

While we should protect young people from high risk situations, such as abuse and trauma, low-level manageable challenges, such as exams help develop young people mentally and emotionally. Allowing students to avoid exams so they avoid stress might be robbing children of the opportunity to deal with the emotions evoked by the challenge. It also teaches them we don’t think they are capable of meeting the challenge.

Young people need to understand study is something they do, not who they are, or they will be vulnerable in this area.

Young people with a diagnosis of anxiety need clinical support to help them succeed through exam periods. But young people experiencing “normal” exam stress should be provided with strategies to help manage stress.

Life can be stressful, but it is how we see this stress that creates anxiety. Adults could do well helping young people believe they are not passive recipients of stress, but can decide how they view challenges. They also need to help young people believe they have inner resources to manage stressful situations, and that they are worth something, whatever number they get in exams.

How to change young people’s perceptions around exams

Some practical steps to help the young people in your world that are feeling overwhelmed by exams include;

Letting them know that you love them

This one sounds so simple that it doesn’t even register for some parents. Of course you love your kids, you tell them all the time but in this case have you simply let them know that whatever result they get from their exams, your love for them will not be altered and that you will continue to support them in whatever way you can.

This statement alone can take the pressure off students dramatically, as most students that are feeling overwhelmed at the thought of exams are feeling that way mostly because they don’t want to let their parents down. That pressure to not let their parents down may very well be the thing that has them fumble at exam time.

Demystify the value of exams

If you can convey that good exam results are simply beneficial and that anything less than is not the end of the world, you will take the sting out of what lay ahead for students. Knowing that life will continue on after high school and that there is no right path helps students reevaluate their self-worth.

Provide practical solutions in the lead up to exams

This doesn’t mean assigning your children a tutor that will consume all of their downtime with study. This means, sitting down with your children and asking them to set goals for what they hope to achieve in their exams, from there it’s a matter of reverse engineering what needs to be practically done, having the two of you agree upon time required, study methods etc helps formulate an accountability.

To take it one step further, you can incentivise your children. If they accomplish certain tasks in the lead up to exams, you will reward them with an agreed upon incentive.

Make sure to map out a balanced life/study balance as stepping away from the books can be just as critical when it comes to exam performance.

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