The COVID-19 lockdown period affected everyone around the world, but, arguably, it affected our school-age students most of all, especially in relation to exam stress. As a teacher, I’ve seen it firsthand.
While many of us returned to normal life as restrictions were lifted and masks were thrown away, many students have had to deal with the long-term mental health impacts of COVID-19 on their studies and their lives. Whether it be due to isolating at home without social contact, issues at home or increasingly competitive academic standards, students across the world dealt with — and are still dealing with — the consequences of lockdowns.
Not only did these factors affect the general mental health of our students, but older high-schoolers and college applicants have had to deal with unprecedented levels of stress around exams and academic performance.
The COVID-19 environment’s impact on youth and adolescent mental health has been well-established through a plethora of studies, such as one from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. However, we’re still seeing the effects bleed into students’ school lives and academic achievements, despite lockdowns occurring three years ago.
High-level anxiety around testing has led my school to implement programs (particularly in ninth grade) to help combat anxiety and stress surrounding academic performance in favor of teaching more practical and generalized stress management strategies. Unfortunately, these programs weren’t available to students who just completed 12th grade and were taking college entrance exams.
Schools I have taught at, and invigilated exams for, have nearly run out of space to house all the students who have been granted access to separate testing spaces. This is being provided to help with anxiety that has been amplified due to exams. Some of these schools had to repurpose their support personnel to staff these rooms.
Other causes of student anxiety
Exam stress isn’t the only anxiety students have. The explosion of generative AI has elicited a mixed bag of emotions from students. While many initially rejoiced at the ability to outsource writing essays and get quick answers for tests, the bigger picture and reality of the situation has started to set in.
In the classroom, we have started to discuss and use tools like ChatGPT to facilitate discussions — just one way these chatbots can be a useful tool for teachers. However, underneath its utility as a learning program is an undertone of fear.
Students know that as they grow up in this new AI-enabled world, jobs will be at risk because of this technology, and development will continue to speed up over the next few years. Many students are starting to worry that, simply to get a job, they need to perform even better in high school to gain acceptance into more competitive college programs and eventually stand out from the crowd.
This new source of stress has led some families to choose online-only schools for their students. This is the first year teaching at an online-only school, and many of my students have said the anxiety surrounding school is too great for them to attend physically.
How families are addressing student stress
Many families also have opted for outside-of-school support to assist their students with academic performance in a bid to remain competitive and achieve higher marks. I’ve seen more students openly discuss tutoring and attend external tutoring lessons with their peers.
Tutoring, once reserved for struggling students, has now become the norm for many. I checked in with the company that tutors many of my students, KIS Academics in Australia. Founder Manoj Arachige told me that his company’s 2022 analysis of Google search terms showed the greatest number of searches for “exam stress” in the last 10 years, with one month hitting the highest number in 20 years.
“We’ve seen students as young as 6 being tutored to help keep up with the fast pace of school. It just goes to show that despite increasing anxiety around exams and the potential decline in students’ mental health, educational performance is still valued in the ever more competitive academic landscape” Arachige told me.
How educators can ease students’ stress
I use these techniques in my classroom to help reduce students’ anxiety.
- Foster a supportive classroom environment. Create a safe space where students feel comfortable expressing their emotions and concerns, both to you and to their fellow students. Encourage open communication and active listening to help them feel heard and understood. Always show empathy and understanding with students who are struggling.
- Teach stress management techniques. Incorporate stress-reduction strategies such as deep breathing and physical activity into your lessons. Students who participated in a short school-based mindfulness program experienced reduced stress and an increased capacity for sustained attention, according to a study conducted by the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University.
- Provide academic guidance and resources. Along with teaching stress reduction techniques, offer guidance on effective study habits, time management and organization skills. Additionally, provide resources such as study guides, online tutorials or recommended apps that can assist students in developing effective study strategies and improving their time management and organizational skills. These can help with greater confidence and reduced stress.
- Promote self-care practices. Educate students about the importance of self-care, and help them develop healthy habits outside of the classroom. Encourage activities plenty of sleep, a balanced diet, hobbies and time spent with loved ones.
- Engage with parents or guardians. Share resources and suggestions with parents or guardians on how they can support their child’s stress management beyond the classroom. Communicate regularly to keep them informed about their child’s well-being.
- Offer flexibility and understanding. Understand that students may be dealing with personal challenges outside the classroom. Within reason, be flexible with deadlines and make accommodations when necessary, allowing them to prioritize their mental well-being.
- Encourage peer support networks. Facilitate opportunities for students to connect with and support each other. Group activities, peer tutoring and class discussions can foster a sense of community and provide emotional support. Peer support is “very effective in supporting [individuals] to manage their mental health difficulties,” according to report from UK student mental health charity Student Minds.
- Collaborate with counselors and support staff. Work closely with the school’s counseling team to identify students who may require additional support. Share your observations and concerns, and collaborate on strategies to assist students effectively. It can be hard managing the individual difficulties of each student when you have a classroom of 30 students, so make sure to remind students of the services available to them consistently.
Astrid Bockelmann is an English teacher at Haileybury College, Australia’s largest independent school. She has a master of teaching from Monash University. Many of Bockelmann’s students have used KIS Academics for tutoring.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.