Pupil wellbeing: are they just as stressed as us?

July 3, 2018
Emma Bentley

Emma Bentley

Head of Geography at Thorns Collegiate Academy

As the stress of GCSEs results looms over teachers and students, I realise more than ever the importance of prioritising pupil wellbeing.

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his blog is part of Ambition:Feed's pupil wellbeing challenge. Find more tips and discussion on the Ambition:Feed homepage.

I found myself worrying about getting the increased content covered of the new specification. I felt it had been overwhelming to plan new lessons, fieldwork trips, case studies, textbooks and revision guides.

Alongside these new specification changes, our school has also changed to an academy. We’ve got a new headteacher, new uniform and new technology.

That’s when it hit me. This is all new to my students too. Not only are they being asked to cope with these changes, they’re also tackling GCSEs in at least eight subjects. I thought, “wow, how must they feel?”

I asked my Year 11s, who are sitting their GCSEs this summer term. They told me they felt that Key Stage 3 hadn’t prepared them enough, and they wished they’d had more relevant teaching in Year 7. They said this could have helped them to gain and practice the skills needed throughout KS3, rather than having to start from scratch at KS4.

My students explained that they felt stressed and overwhelmed, especially when their teachers didn’t have time to cover basic skills again. They were pressed by teachers to come to after-school revision, even having a personalised intervention timetable that covered every lunch break too. This was not just in my subject, but across the board.

This didn’t come as a surprise to me. I reflected on their comments, and realised that we put too much pressure on students too late. 

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Perhaps if they had been better prepared through KS3 then they wouldn’t feel so much pressure now. Or what if we had introduced new technology and policies in stages, so students could cope better? Would they feel less stressed? Would they be more on board with the changes?

Concerned parents and teachers have made my school more aware of students’ stress levels. In response, the school has organised anti-stress clinics to help. Students can visit the clinic during lessons if they need to, and catch up what was missed afterwards. During visits, students are taught methods of coping with the pressures of exams with breathing exercises and ‘time out’ cards.

My students told me while their visits were helpful, they’d struggled to catch up on the work they’d missed. This added to their stress, to the point where they preferred to visit the clinic at lunch time so they didn’t have to try and figure out the missed lesson alone. They also said their teachers didn’t have time to sit down and talk them through the content.

In a nutshell, time is the biggest restraint to preparing students in advance, and therefore enabling stress to be reduced. Teachers and students don’t have time to filter wellbeing into their lives, no time to reflect, or to change to help improve their mindset.

Daily school life is full of statistics about progress, behaviour and rewards. Why not make wellbeing a priority? Even if it is not statistically analysed, it can be scrutinised through better attendance and student progress, when our students feel cared for and important. 

"This is all new to my students too. Not only are they being asked to cope with these changes, they’re also tackling GCSEs in at least eight subjects. I thought, “wow, how must they feel?”"

I realised that this would become one of my priorities the day that one of my Year 10 students took a day off because they felt too stressed to cope with school. When I saw her in the playground the next day, I asked her how she was feeling. It took me just ten seconds to ask, and one minute to listen to that student vent.

Later that day, her mother emailed me to thank me for taking the time to ask. That student went home feeling like somebody had cared for her, and not just her grades. Since then, she has attended lunchtime revision and after-school exam technique sessions. Her grades have improved.

I have many other examples of where I have taken just a couple of minutes of my day to ask my students if they have recovered from their flu, or addressed their stress trigger. I’ve offered advice on taking multivitamins to boost lethargy, provided snacks at after-school sessions and showed students the importance of looking after their wellbeing.

These small conversations have shown care and support, and helped to build relationships of trust. These are invaluable when students are pushed to their limits with stress. They have an ever increasing workload and at times are under the same time pressures as us adults.

Students need a helping hand until they can manage their own feelings and we shouldn’t pass our stress onto them, but help them to manage theirs.

Take a minute to reflect on how you feel. Think about how students will also be feeling the same pressures. Think about how we can make this just a little bit easier for them. A little goes along way.


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Emma is a current participant on our Teaching Leaders Secondary programme. Teaching Leaders is a leadership development programme for high-potential middle leaders looking to improve pupil outcomes and increase their impact as a leader.

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