Stepping outside the pressure cooker: the importance of performing arts on the continuous treadmill of exam season
“He’s a workaholic”, I hear you say about your colleague. “He needs to find a better work-life balance”. We all know the dangers that working too intensely take on our physical and mental health, family relationships, general happiness and emotional wellbeing. We acknowledge this is the case for adults. Yet, every year many young people in primary and secondary education give up their hobbies, including sports and performing arts, to work intensely for seemingly endless tests and examinations. Doesn’t this seem rather counter-intuitive to you?
When confronted with more examinations and high stakes tests than ever before, it is very easy to fall into misguided, thinking. That thinking looks something like “my child has got exams coming up, therefore the more hours he/she revises the exam subjects, the better his/her results will be”. This thinking, though, is fundamentally flawed, because while children need to study in focussed ways, their outcomes are not directly correlated with the number of hours spent revising and studying.
Learning is seldom a linear process. Great leaps forward frequently happen followed by steps back before taking more leaps forward. New ideas are formulated when children have the space to consider their knowledge in a wider field. For that to happen they need greater freedom for self-expression in a safe environment away from traditional constraints.
It has long been suggested that the primary purpose of sleep is to allow new associations of knowledge to be embedded in the brain by the unbundling and rebuilding of brain connections. This also happens at times when we allow the brain the freedom to mulch and process information by creating mental space.
Performing arts allow the exact kind of escapism from traditional exam study stress needed to make vital connections and to consolidate learning. Engagement provides very physical means of letting off steam and discovering things about the world in new and experimental ways. To be effective, study needs to be stimulating, motivating and deliberate/focussed. An intense period of one hour study with the knowledge of the possibility of doing something you love afterwards, can be far more motivating and involving than three hours labouring over the same material. The mental stress relief of taking your children out of the pressure cooker of exam study to explore creatively and freely can do more to enhance their exam performance than endlessly pressing away with more study hours. Remember, performing arts demand immense dedication and focus – and these are fundamentally important for effective study too.
In order to thrive and feel motivated, we need to feel competent, related and autonomous – as defined by Deci and Ryan’s well-respected Self Determination Theory. To transfer this effectively to other areas of our lives, we need to work hard at ensuring that children’s lives have something that they own and they want to be a part of. Recently, I asked students at Stagecoach Godalming why they get out of bed on a Saturday morning to come to do three hours of singing, dancing and acting. The candid responses from students revealed what we already know, including:
“School is really intense and Stagecoach gives me something to look forward to at the end of every week. We work hard here too but it’s different; we choose to be here. I’ve got great friends who like the same things as me and we all bring our different experiences here. It helps you consider life outside of your own school bubble.”
“I’ve been coming here for 7 years and I know this is what makes me more confident. I used to just give up at school but I believe in myself now and know what to do if I feel myself getting stressed with the exam stuff.”
These students are extremely fortunate to be supported to gain ‘Creative Courage For Life’ through regular high-quality engagement in the performing arts. They thrive in a safe space to enjoy themselves, be creative, and to be playful and imaginative with their self-expression. The mental health benefits of improved motivation, confidence, self-esteem and lower stress levels are well known but they are useless if children are not given the chance to explore these opportunities because they have to spend time only studying for exams.
A little light relief to reduce the pressure may be the greatest study aid a parent can provide. It is time to acknowledge not only the benefits that performing arts convey in themselves, but also how such releases can enhance, rather than restrict, learning across other subjects.
This article is by Dr Alison Daubney, PhD and Chartered Psychologist Gregory Daubney, co-authors of Play: The psychology of optimal music performance.