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Exam time … take a breath! Effective affective skills in action

"I feel there is nothing better we could offer them than to learn how to take a breath, step back, centre themselves and engage more fully with whatever comes next."

“I feel there is nothing better we could offer them than to learn how to take a breath, step back, centre themselves and engage more fully with whatever comes next.”

Mindfulness educator and IB parent, Kevin Hawkins, explains the benefits of mindful techniques during this stressful exam season. 

My third (and final) child is about to sit the IB Diploma exams so, as a parent, I understand a fair bit about the stresses and strains of high stakes testing. As an educator, I have spent most of my career in middle schools and have therefore been shielded from too much direct exposure to the sharper edges of learning. But in recent years, I have taught mindfulness courses to 11th graders and heard all about their experiences of pre-exam stress and how they cope with it. One exercise that many said they found useful was the 7/11 breathing technique.

7/11 breathing: This is a very simple way of gently extending the out-breath to help calm yourself in stressful situations – such as opening up an exam paper. Students are shown how to count internally to 7 on the inhale and to 11 on the exhale. We get the teenagers to focus attention on the counting because this can help unplug a little from the narrative circuitry – the storytelling that sometimes embellishes, heightens or prolongs stressful experiences. Some find that even doing the counting is a challenge when stressed, in this case we suggest using the syllables—“sev-en” and “e-lev-en”—instead, so it becomes a slow count of two on the inhale and three on the exhale. We also tell them to “fit the counting to the breathing” and not the other way round, so it’s fine to speed up the count to fit the breath. This has a more subtle effect on extending the out-breath which is a known way of engaging the parasympathetic nervous system, which can help counter some of our anxious moments.

Mindful breathing in the exam room

Taking even one single conscious breath and allowing a longer exhale before jumping into that first exam question, especially in a hyped–up adrenalin driven state, may feel counter-intuitive. But it can prove highly valuable. Starting off an exam can bring stresses to invigilators too. Giving students their best shot at success by providing a calm environment could be a good place to start.

The American School of the Hague, Netherlands, taught all their high school students an eight week mindfulness course and the IB Coordinator introduced a guided 7/11 practice before starting the exams. They used it first in the mocks so that students knew it was coming and didn’t suffer increased anxiety over fear of losing exam time. Student feedback has been very positive and it would be wonderful if more schools tried it out.

Of course, it works best when students and teachers are already trained in mindfulness techniques so that the students have experienced the changes in states of mind, body and feelings that such exercises can produce. Like all mindfulness practices, while they appear simple they usually work best if whoever is leading them has significant experience and is able to ‘do the practice’ at the same time as they guide it.

Mind management

It’s not only IB Diploma students who are currently dealing with their exams – MYP students will soon undergo their final assessments as pilot schools trial the new on-screen MYP examinations.

When it comes to exams and exam preparation our students need more than the ability to memorize facts and articulate understanding. In order to cope with the pressures and achieve their best they also need to be self-motivated, resilient, persistent, and yes, mindful. These, along with “emotional management,” are all capacities that are included in the new “Affective skills” cluster of the IB’s Approaches to Learning (ATL) guidelines which focus on “managing state of mind.”

Introducing the new category of self management points to an important shift, not just in thinking within the IB, but also in the wider world. Against a background of rising depression and anxiety, and in particular amidst concerns around mental health issues facing young people, many educational organizations are now considering how best to promote positive mental health and social and emotional learning (SEL). Schools around the world are increasingly seeing the wellbeing of their students—and their teachers—as a primary concern. Understanding how our minds, bodies and emotions work—and especially how they react when under pressure—can help young people develop a toolkit to draw on to cope better with some of life’s difficult moments.

Social emotional learning and mindful awareness

It has been my pleasure to work with the MYP team that has been developing the IB’s focus on affective skills and on social and emotional learning. I have been highly impressed by the passion for this work within the IB and for the growing understanding of the importance of creating cohesive frameworks in our schools that combine academic, social and emotional skills and intelligences in ways that both enhance academic success and also provide our young people with some essential life skills. The IB is working on a variety of new digital resources to support teachers, counselors and administrators looking to further develop this crucial area in their school communities.

Many schools have begun to train teachers and students in mindfulness as a way to support their personal growth and self-awareness. In my personal experience, this kind of training has really helped build the observational skills and engaged presence that form the foundation for self-management and for enhanced social and emotional capacities. At a time when our young people are feeling intense pressures and distractions from a fast-paced, tech-driven world, I feel there is nothing better we could offer them than to learn how to take a breath, step back, centre themselves and engage more fully with whatever comes next.

What comes next for many students around the world (including my son) is a series of high-pressure exams that will determine many subsequent moments. Regardless of how well they do, or how well they wish they had done, what we really want for them is to be able to leave our schools fully equipped to deal with life, as well as college. By investing more time and energy in developing those affective skills, we may just be beginning to help with that.

Kevin will run a pre-conference session at the Africa, Europe, Middle East regional conference that takes place from 29 October – 1 November 2015. It will be held at the World Forum, in The Hague, the Netherlands. Find out more and register here.