I’ve had Social Anxiety Disorder from the age of 15 and the recent ChildLine reports prompted me to think about this in relation to my own time in education. I can easily summarise those five years in one word: terror. Secondary school laid the foundations for later issues with mental health. Like many, I found the experience to be hard and unnerving. For the first time in my life, I was forced to behave in a way that was deemed ‘desirable’ rather than what felt comfortable for me.
Constant group work, speaking out in class and reading aloud were all activities that ‘normal’ and ‘sociable’ children should do. In contrast, I preferred working on my own and presenting my ideas to smaller groups, rather than to a class of 30 or so of my peers. This wasn’t an environment that got the best out of me and many of my teachers were quick to judge.
Here’s an example from one of my school reports: “Claire is a shy and deeply reserved girl. She rarely answers questions in class and doesn’t enjoy sharing her work with others. She also seems to spend lots of time daydreaming, which is a concern. With the exam period approaching, she needs to make a special effort to come out of her shell, if she wants to succeed.”
Notice that the report makes no reference to the actual quality of my work. I was a mostly A/B grade student, but the report only mentions my personality.
In general, teachers assumed that my quiet nature and daydreaming indicated that I was stupid. My maths teacher called me “bone idle” on numerous occasions and another teacher refereed to me as being “a bit thick” in a fit of temper. Classmates delighted in these labels and used them to berate me for months.
Despite the fact that I now have a Bachelor's degree, a Master's degree and a good job, I still hear the word “thick” in darker moments. That’s the thing about labels, they stick.
The sad truth is I wasn’t quiet because I didn’t understand the lessons; I was actually struggling with the pressures and I didn’t know how to express this. What if I don’t do well in my exams? What if I let everyone down? Do people like me?
By the age of 15, I'd developed physical symptoms of anxiety, blushing deeply whenever somebody spoke to me, and a constant tremor in my hands. I didn’t understand why it was happening, and I became paranoid that others would notice. This was the beginning of a lengthy battle.
Modern teenagers' problems are often dismissed as being silly or dramatic. But I wonder if adults could cope with the pressures that teens face? Being judged daily on your appearance, constant homework and revision, high expectations of exam success in over nine different subjects? I feel nauseous just thinking about it.
This raises questions about whether educators should be more concerned with a student’s emotional welfare. Not all children are the same and surely this should be celebrated rather than criticised.
“We must all listen to what the children calling ChildLine are saying about exam-related stress. NUT-commissioned research has revealed increases in anxiety, stress and disaffection among pupils as well as a negative impact on the quality of the teacher-pupil relationship because of the level of pressure on schools,” says Christine Blower, the NUT’s general secretary.
If teachers are more aware of these issues, then perhaps they could offer support and prevent mental health problems from developing. However, with combined pressures already crushing the educational system such as league tables, results and badly-managed schools, one wonders if this will become a reality. If not, we can expect more teens reaching out to charities such as ChildLine, Mind and Anxiety UK to for much needed help. Mental Health Awareness Week #MHAW15
Tips for reducing exam stress:
- Talking is a great way to alleviate pressure. Confiding in a parent or teacher can help a child cope, and put their worries into perspective. Parents should also be patient during this period and ask what they can do to help. Sometimes a little space works wonders.
- If the actual exam environment is a cause for anxiety, then practice exposure can help. Schools may allow students to sit in the examination hall a few days in advance. This will help them to acclimatise and feel more comfortable on the day.
- While it’s important to have a revision schedule and work hard, the brain also needs to rest. Going for a walk, reading or watching TV for half an hour is good way to recharge.
Claire Eastham blogs at www.weallmadhere.com