Young people today are under more pressure than ever before – and it can reach fever pitch at exam time when revision takes over their lives. Even if the stress is only temporary, helping them to manage it is crucial for their wellbeing explains Headmaster Dr Julian Murphy from Our Lady’s Convent School, part of the Loughborough Endowed Schools Foundation.
The Duke of Cambridge’s recent comments that we should lose the ‘stiff upper lip’ and talk about our emotions undoubtedly resonated with many education professionals. Working with young people every day, we are all too aware of the enormous pressures they face from exams, social media, peers and major life events like bereavement, family breakdown or illness.
As a school, we naturally value academic success – but not to the detriment of our students’ mental health and wellbeing. For example, outstanding grades will not take you too far in the real world if you do not have the strength of character to cope with failure and disappointment and to grow from such experiences.
Arguably, it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of character education, especially compared to grades. This sometimes means that it is something that has lip service paid to it, but is not part of the DNA of school life. It is our firm belief that, for a character education programme to be truly effective it has to follow three basic rules:
(1) Character education is part of everything: It should be part of how we mark work and write reports; how we interact with students in every lesson; and how we think about our curriculum and our extra-curricular offering.
(2) Walk it like you talk it: Young people don’t respond to empty slogans or preaching, they respond to consistent role-modelling. Therefore, it is vital that school staff agree on the core virtues we wish to nurture in our young people and then think about how we model those virtues ourselves in our everyday dealings with them. Of particular importance is that young people see their teachers being compassionate, ready to take risks, open about their failings and humorous in the face of life’s stresses.
(3) Work with parents: In the end, parents do more to shape the character of their children than any school can. So regular communication with families about the importance of character education helps to ensure we are all singing from the same hymn sheet. We hold workshops with parents to discuss ways of working in partnership on key issues like screen time, social media, bullying, stress and healthy working habits, in which we explore how family and school can best assist each other.
When it comes to exams, it is crucial that schools work with parents to focus on the following key messages
Physical health: Are you getting enough fresh air, exercise and sleep and enjoying a balanced diet? This becomes even more important at times of academic stress than ever, and sets up positive habits for the rest of your life.
Organisation and routine: Are you working to a challenging but practical routine of revision, which has suitable rewards and rest breaks built in? Organisation gives a sense of being in control, which is central to mental health.
Active revision: Doing nothing but reading through your files and making pages-and-pages of revision notes is the best way to spend a lot of time working for little gain. Are you doing brief revision notes then focusing on testing yourself and practising past paper questions under timed conditions? This is how to work smart for exams.
Finally, shutting out background noise: ‘Background noise’ is anything that detracts from your ability to focus and anything that causes pointless anxiety. Make sure you avoid it. Background noise can include anything from too much use of social media to paying attention to other students when they talk about how much work they are doing (it is highly probable that they are bending the truth).
Above all, what our young people need at exam time, as at any other time, is the confidence that there is always someone calm, non-judgemental and sensible they can talk to, no matter what is worrying them. That is why, if you want to help build character in your students, you have to be prepared to really listen to them and take them seriously. This not only helps them when the pressure is on, but teaches them the most important lesson in life: that the greatest gift you can give to others is your time and your respect.