Blog Post No. 32
8th May 2016 – Updated on 25th April 2021
Copyright © Renata Taylor-Byrne 2016-2021
Renata’s Coaching & Counselling blog: How deep breathing and revision techniques help students get higher grades
Review of a Sunday Times article on stress management for pupils and their parents
At this time of year there are thousands of students of all ages going in for exams of one kind or another. How can they help themselves to handle the pressures they face?
In this blog I am going to do a short summary of an experiment that was conducted over the last three years in an independent girls school, to help students who were preparing for their GCSE exams; and look at the results to see how they could help anyone who was entering an exam themselves.
Revision, Planning and Deep breathing
For the last year, students at Queen Anne’s independent boarding school, in Reading, have been learning all about how their brains react to stress, so that they are ready for their forthcoming exams.
They were shown how planning and revision strategies reduce the sense of panic when they are in the exam room. But they were also taught techniques such as deep breathing and reappraising the importance of the exams.
Pressure from the parents and universities
Why would strategies like this be necessary?
Apparently there was a survey conducted by the Headmaster’s and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), which represents schools such as Eton, Harrow, Westminster as well as other independent schools.
95% of the heads who were polled said: “Visible stress related to exams” had increased in their schools over the last 5 years. And more than half, 56%, said that the biggest cause of the children becoming stressed was the pressure from home. And nearly all head teachers (97%) said that they were now asking parents to come to advice sessions and offering parenting classes to deal with the pressure their children were under, and how to help reduce it.
So, it was in reaction to the increasing stress on children that the head of the school, Julia Harrington, created a 3 year research project to examine how to help the children handle the pressure of forthcoming exams.
“I wanted to make sure the girls stopped being afraid of stress”, she said.
The research focused on teaching the pupils pre-planning for exams plus deep breathing techniques.
Do pre-planning and deep breathing techniques work?
The students attended workshops on mental preparation for their exams and deep breathing techniques, to calm themselves down when necessary.
The school staff found an improvement of up to 2 grades in mock GCSE exams, from December 2014 to January 2016. Abigail Leach, 15, was a student at the school and as a result of the workshops, found that her C grades improved to A’s. She said: “It’s been really helpful…I use deep breathing and also try to put the exams into perspective…they are not the be-all and end-all of life.”
We do not know the proportion of pupils who improved their grades so dramatically, but the author of the article, and the teaching staff, seemed very impressed by the overall effect of the research and teaching strategy.
What can all students learn from the outcomes of this project?
Regardless of the type of school or college, and most pupils do not attend independent schools, I think this research should be taken seriously by teachers and pupils or students, and their parents.
There are two powerful reasons why the techniques taught to the girls at the school were beneficial and led to a reduction in stress in the exam room, with the outcome that they were able to perform better in the exam situation.
Firstly, the techniques they were taught gave them a sense of control over their bodies and minds and this strengthened their ability to handle stress. The stress response is explained to the students, and demystified, and seen and understood to be a predictable, manageable process that can be reduced if they follow certain procedures.
As they learned about their stress response, how it worked and how to handle it, their fear of the unknown would have reduced.
Secondly, if you do deep breathing exercises of any kind, these techniques automatically switch on the ‘relaxation response’ in the body.
This is because the parasympathetic nervous system is triggered by the deep breathing, into secreting hormones in order to decrease blood pressure and heart rate. This is immediately experienced as more pleasurable than the feeling of being stressed, and the learners realize they have the power to create this relaxed feeling as necessary.
It is very sad to read about the increase in cases of self-harm, depression, anxiety and eating disorders among pupils in schools, which has been recorded in recent years. This seems highly likely to be the result of the fact that pressure has been racked up by the Universities, who want to reintroduce a sense of competition for places, and by government policies.
But it’s encouraging to think that some schools are taking stress reduction strategies much more seriously, and seeing that not only do exam preparation techniques and stress management strategies help the pupils, but there is a natural increase in academic performance as children become happier and more in control of their bodies and minds.
Of course, now their parents have to learn to calm down. But that’s not the children’s problem!
Having been in the position of helping students to pass exams for many years, it’s heart-warming to see teachers taking students stress levels seriously and making space for lessons in stress management, in the school system.
Knowing the value of stress management in my own life, I took the time to study for a diploma in stress management; and I have taught stress management strategies in a variety of contexts for more than two decades.
Today, I prefer to teach stress management strategies on an individual basis, in Hebden Bridge.
That’s all for now.
“Top schools teach fretful parents in bid to ease pressure on pupils”, by Sian Griffiths, Page 8, ‘The Sunday Times’, 17th April 2016