It’s the exam season again! My take on behaviour changes

Exams, the maker or breaker of children’s dreams and school years, the inconvenience to the summer in just about everyone’s eyes (not that we get much sunshine in the UK anyway, but we can dream), are back on the horizon now, with children up and down the country taking on GCSEs, A levels, SATs and any other exams that the government want to throw at us.

So what effect do these exams have on the children’s behaviour? What do you do as a teacher if a child starts acting up, knowing the pressure that these kids are under? Well I’m going to attempt to answer these using a couple of different examples of people I’ve met, worked with, or went to school with many moons ago. Of course I won’t be using names for obvious reasons.

The first example is a boy I used to know who always knew where the limits to behaviour was, and frequently tried to push them. He had potential, but was never completely willing to show it for whatever reason. He would often decide to turn up late, answer one question in an hour, and then sit in the back corner of the room doing nothing productive for the rest of the day. Naturally, the expectations for him were very low because he showed little evidence of anything higher. The exam season came around, so much so that the penny finally dropped. All of a sudden his attitude towards his learning completely changed. He would turn up to lessons on time, ask for additional work to support his revision, and even apologised to the teacher for all the problems he caused previously. It was like a completely different boy had entered the classroom.

The second example is a girl that always used to push herself to the limit, working harder than anyone else around her, refusing to do nothing but her best work 100% of the time. In many ways, most people would class her as a model student. However, the exam season, like in the first example, showed quite an alarming twist in the tale. The exams came round and the expectation on her to get the highest marks in her class amounted to so much pressure that she caved in. Her confidence fell through the floor and she gave up. She stopped working on homework completely, her attitude turned sour towards her peer group and the teachers.

I’m sure I’m not only speaking for myself when I say it would be lovely to have all children have the attitude that the boy in the first example developed. Sadly the results in the second example with the girl showed what can happen. The question remains as to how we deal with this as teachers.

Well, if we were working as to the book, logic would say that you would treat this as any other incident across the year, using the appropriate sanctions. But this isn’t just any time of the year. This is a time when the pressure ramps up, partly due to the weight of expectation, but us teachers also put pressure on them, even if we don’t mean to. The last thing they need when they are get revision classes, practice papers and all sorts of different things thrown at them in all kinds of subjects is time in detention. It’s natural that behaviour may be a little worse than usual, so my advice is to not be so heavy handed.

So what could happen in the classroom and how do we look at it?

General disruption will always be present. Always acknowledge bad behaviour in whatever guise it appears. But some leeway for minor indiscretions can be appropriate on occasion. I believe in a firm but fair approach, but for kids who are feeling the strain of exams, I like to use discretion and give them the benefit of the doubt. I also believe in talking to them and helping them to see that what they are doing is unacceptable, and let them know that if their behaviour is linked to stress you can tackle it together.

Uniform and appearance is the hatred of the school, with some children taking to customising the look of their uniform with clown length ties, top buttons on their shirts undone and shirts untucked. Personally, I come down the line of tidy appearances throughout the year as I believe a person who dresses smartly would behave more mature. I usually wear a suit in the classroom so I expect the same courtesy. Of course this is exam time, and the summer, so this isn’t always going to be possible for some students. If someone does untuck their shirt, use your discretion and avoid being firm. A casual ‘your shirt has untucked itself again’ may be the limit I would use. We don’t want the children to feel like we don’t appreciate the effort they make towards the exams with something like uniform.

Often punctuality can become a problem with some children. It’s easy to reprimand the child on every occasion they are late, but this perhaps isn’t the best approach during an exam time. The may have genuine reasons for being late. Instead look at the minutes they are late by, and wait for it to accumulate to a certain amount of time. Perhaps for every half an hour in minutes the child is late, they have to attend a revision session for that half an hour. It’s important that the child know that if they miss some time, they need to make that time up. Time is not a luxury during exam times as the exam period in my experience tends to fly by.

Arguably, this is the most important part of the year for work to be completed on time because that time is fast running out. However, it is crucial to use your judgement. When children tell you they are finding it hard to stay on top of work and revision, it’s important to find out exactly what level of work they are contending with and how much revision they are actually doing. Based on this information, you can give the student advice on time management rather than punishing them, and help them to create structured timetables. If you smell a rat, however, don’t let them run through a list of tired excuses. Instead, tackle the issue head-on. It is vital that the children understand the need to be committed.

The most extreme thing I’ve ever seen happen is the occasional fight between children. It’s very easy to come down heavy on these fights, but knowing the time, I would treat this the same as general disruption. Once everyone is calm, talk to them, if their behaviour is linked to stress, which is highly likely, tackle it with them. Managing stress is not just an exam effort, but a life skill. Learning it early makes life so much easier, some adults haven’t even learned this skill. We’ve all been guilty of letting stress get the better of us, I can certainly think of a few occasions myself.

Not all people will agree that we need to adjust. There will always be people who advocate making no changes in behaviour policy during the exam period, arguing that consistency is all-important and that at this time more than ever children need to know where the boundaries lie. However, if we insist on putting students through the enormous stresses of exams, we have to accept the repercussions. We are already treating them differently in class – pushing them harder, piling on the work, making bleak pronouncements about the consequences of any lack of effort – and behaviour management should not be excluded from those changes.

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