Coping with uncertainty about school and exams

llustration shows a young person studying at home on a laptop, with a pile of books next to them

There’s a lot of uncertainty about school right now

With GCSEs and A-Level exams cancelled and many schools about to open their doors for the first time in three months, it’s a pretty weird time to be a school student. Some of  you might quite like being at home and having a change of pace, but you might also feel a bit stressed about not being able to take your exams, or worried about what it will be like to go back to school after months of lockdown.

We spoke to Dr Emma Silver to get her expert advice and answers to some of your questions and worries. Dr Silver is a consultant clinical psychologist with more than 25-years’ experience working with young people, and families. She has a role in CAMHS at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust and is director of wellbeing at Highgate School.

I’m feeling uncertain about school and I don’t know what’s going to happen next

Generally we find uncertainty difficult, and this is definitely the case for young people at the moment. Uncertainty and lack of control is affecting those of you who may have already been struggling with your mental health, and also impacting those of you with no previous difficulties. The structure of the school day, the clear boundaries created by school, and knowing what is expected of you, can give you a sense of certainty and security, so it is not surprising that many of you are feeling more anxious without this structure.

It’s important to think about the things that you can control. It may be that you can’t control when you will return to school or go out with friends, but you can bring the time closer and think about the next few days, or today, and think about what you can control in that time frame. For example, try focusing on when you get up, what you’re going to eat, which lessons you can engage with, what series you’ll watch, when you get out for some fresh air, when you have a chat with friends, etc.

Will school be different when I go back?

Given that the secondary schools are not yet opening to pupils until mid June, and then likely only for years 10 and 12 initially, its difficult to say what it will look like. However, coming back to school before the end of summer term probably won’t be like it was before you left. There may be staggered times of pupils coming and leaving school and changes to classes to try to implement some forms of social distancing. This may be frustrating and difficult when you want to connect with friends who you have missed, and it may not be as easy to do as you would like. If you’re finding this hard, you’re not alone. It’s important that you try to talk to your teachers, friends or family about the things you’re missing. It will help to chat it through and you’ll probably find that many other people are going through the same thing you are.

If I can’t sit my final exams, will it impact my my choice of university? 

Understandably, this is a common question for lots of you. All students who would have been taking A-levels this year will still get a grade even though they don’t take the final exams, and those grades are your actual A-level grades that you can use to apply to university. The grades are being given by your teachers, who are using all the evidence they have over the last two years to make an informed and fair decision.

Will I get the chance to take my exams at another time? 

There will be the opportunity to sit exams in the autumn. All the information on grading of A-levels and GCSEs and re-taking exams is available here.

I’m worried about my teachers choosing my results for me – what if I would have done better than my predicted grades? 

This is a concern that many of you have, so you’re not alone in this worry. If you think you would do better in the actual exams than what teachers are giving you as a grade then you can talk to your teachers about the possibility of taking the exams in the autumn or next summer instead.

I don’t know which information to trust about changes to education, where should I look?

Updated information about returning to school will be coming from government decisions about reducing social distancing. This is ever changing, but the school itself should be keeping you and your parents informed if there are any changes, so it’s best to get in touch with your teachers if you are unsure what’s happening.

I’m finding it really tough to study at home and I don’t know how to stay focused

Many young people are finding it hard to study at home. It’s really hard if you don’t have your own space to work in, if you are sharing devices, or have younger siblings around. It is important to try to give yourself some structure to your day. If the school is doing some online lessons then do try to attend those. If you are getting up a bit later than the school day usually starts, then do make sure you get up, have a morning routine with getting dressed, breakfast etc to start the day. Try to get enough sleep so that your day and night are not becoming reversed. You may need support from a parent with this – asking them to check in on you so that you start lessons by a particular time, may work better if you negotiate that with a parent rather than getting into conflict about what time they expect you to start.

During the day take regular breaks to get away from your desk and screen. Make sure that you get fresh air and check in with your friends (remotely). If possible go for a walk or do some exercise every day. The pace of learning is likely to be slower than when you are at school, even if the teacher is teaching via a video platform – its unlikely that you’ll get through as much or be able to focus as easily as if it were an in school lesson. So do be kind to yourself and do what you can but manage your own expectations. If you are struggling to keep up then do let your teachers know. This is all new for the teachers too and they are welcoming feedback from pupils so that they can adapt what they are doing.

I can’t take part in online lessons and I’m worried I’ll fall behind

Many of you are struggling to engage with online lessons for a range or reasons, and can be very frustrating. For some they don’t have the devices or good enough wifi, or the space at home, to be online when the lessons are happening. If there are these practical reasons then you should contact your head of year or teachers and let them know your situation. Some schools have been able to provide more devices for pupils. Or the teachers may be able to adapt the lessons so that work is set and they can take questions at other times to support your learning.

I have a difficult home life and my studies are taking a back seat – what should I do? 

The most important thing is your mental health and wellbeing at this time. If you are struggling to manage to engage in school work because of difficulties in your home life, then it will be important to let your school know about this. If there is someone you trust in school then do get in contact with them, as they would be pleased to be of help. If you are worried about yourself or someone in your family then school may be able to help you and your family to access appropriate support.

Not all your teachers would need to know much detail, but they would be more understanding of why you are struggling with the school work and be more helpful, rather than leaving your feeling criticised for not doing the work, which in turn may help you to feel more able to engage with school work. If you are not contacting the school because you are worried about confidentiality, or concerned about how the school may respond to your issues, then you may want to talk this through with an adult who has some understanding of the systems. You can get in touch with The Mix who are there to listen and point you to the right advice.

Get support for coping with uncertainty

If the uncertainty about school and exams is making you feel anxious, know that you’re not alone and we’re here for you. You can find free and confidential support and advice by contacting The Mix’s team of experts and trained volunteers.

Read our article on how to cope with corona anxiety. Read Chloe Combi’s piece about reimagining the future of schools.

Next Steps

  • If you're under 25 and would like free confidential telephone counselling from The Mix to help you figure things out complete this form and we'll call you to arrange your first session.
  • Student Minds is the UK's student mental health charity. Search their website for information, research, and to see how you could get involved.
  • AnxietyUK run helplines, email support, live chats and therapy services for people with anxiety disorders. 08444 775 774
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

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Updated on 03-Jun-2020