It is well known that school can be a significant source of stress and pressure for children and adolescents. Now that schools are back in session, it is vital to know how to support young adults’ mental health in a learning environment.
The Effect of Academic Stress on Mental Health
Many young people feel enormous pressure to perform well in school. Schools often emphasise the importance of exams, particularly GCSEs and A-Levels. While these exams are important, young people can be put under immense pressure to succeed. One study found that 96% of young people stated that their mental health affected their schoolwork, but 62% received no support.
Academic anxiety is becoming increasingly common in young people who are worried about exam performance and how it will affect their future. This anxiety can be so intense that young people can struggle with even attending school, despite wanting to do well in exams.
Some young people may refuse to go to school due to anxiety about their grades and schoolwork. Due to high pressure from parents and teachers as well as themselves, attending school can be a big source of concern. They may show their anxiety around attending by:
- Being reluctant to get ready for school
- Not going to school without the knowledge of their parents
- Not doing homework or schoolwork
- Acting out at home
- Complaining of persistent headaches or stomach aches
Many schools are also not doing enough to support young people who are under enormous pressure. Research found that 25% of staff knew that a student was excluded from school due to their mental health, which contributes to mental health conditions such as anxiety. However, no actions were taken to help excluded students, and exclusion worsened the students feelings of isolation and depression.
Anxiety and Perfectionism
It is a good sign when children strive to do well at school. However, this can be a dangerous road to perfectionism, especially when children are already experiencing high levels of academic anxiety. Schools can be a considerable source of stress, as many students feel pressured to maintain or improve grades.
Young people may spend hours on schoolwork, trying to ensure it is perfect. Alternatively, they may not even attempt their work for fear of making mistakes or may even tear it up if they feel it isn’t good enough.
Perfectionism can also affect different areas of a young adult’s life, such as friendships or relationships with hygiene and health, and it can be exhausting.
The Consequences of Academic Stress
Many consequences can arise because of academic stress in young people, such as:
- Poor sleep quality, potentially leading to unhealthy coping strategies such as smoking or taking substances to concentrate or sleep
These consequences can worsen academic performance and damage mental health, causing young people to become even more anxious about their achievements in school. However, it is possible to help young people who are stressed and anxious about their grades.
Coping With Academic Anxiety
There are several things that parents and carers can do to help young people who are anxious about school, grades, and exams:
- Encourage balance – mental health and well-being should be a priority. Encouraging young adults to make time for their favourite hobbies and friends alongside school, can help to ease some of the pressure they might be feeling.
- Find healthy ways to cope – young people struggling with anxiety may turn to unhealthy ways to cope, such as substance use or self-harm. They may also react badly to perceived failure or a stressful day at school. Finding alternative, healthy ways to process emotions can help young people improve their emotional regulation and aid with stress relief, too. Techniques such as journaling, exercising, and meditating are healthier ways to manage the stress and anxiety of academic pressure.
- Avoid praising outcomes – although this might sound counterintuitive, focusing on the efforts rather than the outcomes of exams, projects, and homework can encourage young people to have a healthier attitude to school. Even if they don’t get the desired results, praising their effort can help them focus on their hard work and demonstrate that scores are not the most important thing.
- Create some goals – setting healthy, achievable goals can help young people to learn what is realistic and unrealistic, as well as how to plan to achieve them. It is also a great tool to help them understand that there are things they can and cannot control and that this can influence their plans.
For young people struggling to attend school, it can still be useful to mirror a school routine, even if they do not attend. Encouraging them to get up at the same time as they would for school and stop for lunch at the same time can help them get back into the school rhythms and reduce some anxiety.
These strategies can take some time to work, so allow children to get used to them and see if they help before moving on. In some cases, these techniques may not be enough, and young people can still struggle with intense academic anxiety. Do not hesitate to seek professional help if a young person you know is suffering from anxiety and mental health difficulties.
It is normal for young people to be stressed about school. However, it crosses a line when it affects all areas of their life, and they are so anxious that they cannot even attend lessons. This anxiety can be rooted in the pressure put upon young people and can be worrying to see as a parent. There are many ways to help them cope, but professional help is recommended if necessary to help children and young adults thrive both in and out of school.
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 Mind.Org.Uk, 2022, https://www.mind.org.uk/media/8852/not-making-the-grade.pdf.