It’s not only students who suffer with stress as GCSE examinations approach; teachers and parents can feel stressed too and often don’t know how to support their teens effectively. A recent Radio 5 Live survey reveals that parents say their mental health and sleep suffer and they sometimes feel ‘not good enough’ as parents. Teachers are under pressure to get results as well as deal with teens in ‘melt-down’ over upcoming exams.
I was excited to be asked to deliver training on mindset for year 11 teens in a local High School recently as they approach GCSE’s. With very little notice or guidance about what the school wanted, it felt like a tough call – designing and delivering a 6-week programme in literally a few days. However, as I have been hoping for more opportunities to work with young people and introduce them to positive psychology ‘tools’ for health and wellbeing – I accepted the challenge gratefully: and it is certainly proving to be a challenge!
Exam stress, anxiety about missing lessons and reluctance to engage in new activities such as mindfulness – in front of their mates and with an unfamiliar teacher – are proving a real challenge and I am definitely having to adopt a growth mindset to come up with new strategies to encourage engagement and participation.
Positive Exam Preparation (PEP): Being and Doing Your Best
Choosing the programme title ‘Positive Exam Preparation: Being and Doing your Best’ felt like a good start. This PEP course is part of the Upward Spirals: Strengthening Schools programme that I have developed which looks at supporting both physical and psychological wellbeing in the same programme. Whilst my focus is on student well-being above exam results, optimistic students are happier and more successful.
I love that Positive Psychology is predominantly about ‘building what’s-strong-not-fixing what’s wrong’ and is aimed at a ‘non-clinical population’, promoting positive psychological resources to prevent future problems. However, I believe that effective support for teens needs to be even broader and more holistic; giving teens positive strategies to cope with stress and look after their wellbeing is just as (if not more) important than revision and study techniques alone. The Upward Spirals programme is an integrated approach that embraces multiple Positive Psychology concepts, mindfulness practice and the foundations of health – healthy diet / hydration; exercise and good quality sleep.
Mindset: The Power of YET
There are so many things that studying an MSc in positive psychology has helped me to understand better. As Carol Dweck states: “The view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects your life”: failing an exam does not make you a failure; it simply means that you are not there YET and may need to try new strategies to reach your goals.
With a fixed mindset, people believe that their intelligence and abilities are fixed at birth and that there is not much you can do to change this.
The emphasis becomes about hiding the feeling that you aren’t smart, constantly trying to prove that you are and sometimes exaggerating or even lying about your achievements.
In a growth mindset, abilities and intelligence are not seen as fixed: with effort and perseverance we can develop these qualities and achieve success.
My own ‘fixed mindset’ belief as teenager – that I was ‘no good at Maths’ – caused me such stress and I suffered with migraine headaches (unsurprisingly, clustered around Maths lessons) for which medication was prescribed. Knowing that we can learn to adopt a ‘growth mindset’ can be a real game-changer: I might have managed school-related stress better and so can teens now. Hence my reason for wanting to give both adults and teens more guidance and better coping tools.
Below are a few of the tips for teens from the course programme.
Positive Exam Prep: Tips for Teens
· Change your mind: Adopt a growth mindset by trying new strategies and tools to boost learning AND wellbeing
· Stay Positive: positive emotions like optimism and hope have a powerful influence on wellbeing and success. Make sure you have a positive support network of people that you can go to for help, support and fun too. Make a note of all the people that you could approach for help and support if you need to and keep it handy
· What’s-worked-well: Think about strategies that have worked well for you in the past and now – do them more
· Use your strengths: There are 7 character strengths associated with academic success: Curiosity, gratitude, optimism, perseverance, self-regulation, social intelligence, zest. Take the VIA free youth survey to find your strengths and use them more. www.viacharacter.org/
· Look after yourself: making sure that you eat well and stay hydrated – oily fish is especially good for the brain but if you don’t like fish you can take Omega 3 supplements; fresh fruit, vegetables, seeds and nuts are good too: walnuts even look like the brain! Get regular exercise in study breaks and plenty of sleep; go to bed and get up at the same time each day.
· Breathe! Practice mindfulness to help you stay calm. www.headspace.com You can sign up for free for 10 days or get the app.
· Use Marginal gains theory: focus on the 1% margin for improvement in all areas linked to studying and exams – by making small changes in all of the above you can achieve substantial gains in your performance! For example:
Drink one glass of water extra per day (maybe reduce pop by 1 can a day too)
Go to bed 10 minutes earlier each night and turn your mobile off at night
Take 3 deep breaths / mindful pauses before studying / exams to stay calm and focussed