Can we do some of that weird stuff?

Stressed-out teenagers are flocking to relaxation classes at a school which is taking its exam pupils' worries seriously. Early signs are that it is doing the trick.

The boy who sits, eyes closed, under his teacher's fingertips, having his scalp gently kneaded, wears a near-seraphic expression. Shoes off, mouth slightly open, he is, one can see, as far from exam stress as it is perhaps possible to be. Around him, in the semi-darkened room, are 30 or so 15-and 16-year-olds, practising Indian head and shoulder massage on one another, quite oblivious to the noise and rush of school lunch-hour outside. They hear only the sounds of birdsong, water and vibraphone on the tape-player, and the soft, husky voice, of their teacher guiding them.

"As you breathe in, any problems you have, become aware of them, and know that you are going to start sorting them out as you breathe out..."

This, unlikely as it may seem to some, is part of the exam revision programme for pupils taking GCSEs at the Trinity School in Warwick. In the months leading up to the exams, all pupils will have completed at least two "stress- management" sessions, as part of the school's Personal and Social Education (PSE); many also attend an optional weekly class during the lunch-hour.

"We don't like to think of our young people being stressed, but they are," says Monica Troughton, a former head of performing arts turned stress- release manager. "They need time to stop and unwind. Even the most difficult student becomes in control when involved with this type of work."

Paul Dempsey, head of Year 11 at the Trinity School, decided to incorporate Troughton's work into the PSE programme last Christmas, when he realised the rising stress levels among pupils preparing for GCSEs.

"We were seeing children very, very upset. We were getting a lot of worried phone-calls from parents. Children were flaring up in class, in quite uncharacteristic ways. Children were coming in, bursting into tears and saying they couldn't cope."

The lead-up to GCSEs, for many 15- and 16-year-olds, is often the first time they have had to cope with concerted stress, Mr Dempsey says.

"The stress on 15- and 16-year-olds seems to have increased over the last few years, and we're finding more individuals struggling. I felt the academic side of exam revision was being covered, but we weren't doing so well on the personal and spiritual side. We'd like to be to able to offer them a coping mechanism that doesn't rely on drugs or alcohol."

Troughton offers pupils a specially designed package of breathing exercises, meditation, and basic head, neck and shoulder massage. She also works on "guided imagery", stimulating pupils' imaginations by encouraging them to visualise a simple story, for instance, finding a wrecked ship deep under the ocean and opening a treasure chest. Inside the chest, each finds a "gift" of their own choosing, an image to which they may be able to return as a solace in time of particular stress or anxiety.

Surprisingly, perhaps, none of this appears to cause any giggling or unease among her GCSE class. If a newcomer proves initially awkward, he or she instantly finds himself under Monica's massaging fingers, and all resistance melts, she says."At the end they say to me, can we do that weird stuff again?"

Touching pupils in any way whatsoever is something that most teachers now go out of their way to avoid. But Troughton insists: "The work is incredibly safe, and the children are trusting. Lots of parents have said to me how much they enjoy it."

She was, she says, determined to "get away from the, hippyish thing, which gets a bit Sixties and seedy," and give her work more of a "business enterprise" image. "The more straightforward and clear you can keep this sort of work, the better for the students," she says.

Her lunch-hour pupils, certainly, have no problem about taking off their shoes shutting their eyes and getting on with it. Pupils readily confirm how stressed they are:

"GCSEs and homework make me stressed, and make me angry," says David Taylor, 16. "Coming to this class helps. The massage and relaxation help release the stress."

"This blanks your mind out for an hour or so, and then you're ready to start working again," says Guy Rumsey, 16. "Some of the boys think it's a bit of a girls' thing and hippyish, it doesn't go with the street image. But that's nonsense, and I'm not that sort of person."

Tami Chin, 15, finds stress a big problem, she says. "It's things like not being able to hand work in on time, studying, coming to school, GCSEs coming up, and more expectations. I like this because you have somebody to talk you through it, all the work isn't just coming from you. Afterwards, I feel I can breathe better, strangely enough."

"Thinking about revision makes me stop sleeping and get stress knots in my back," says Donna Griffin, 15. "Doing this kind of thing is just really relaxing, and it brings out all your thoughts as well."

Naomi Clempson, 15, adds that she and her friends now massage each other's backs every break. "It's like someone's listened to your problems when they massage you. They're tuning in to you, and you feel someone is there for you."

The causes of stress, of course, spread deeper and wider than GCSEs alone. Monica Troughton believes many young people are stressed by feelings of loneliness and difficulties in communicating with those around them. Her stress-management methods have worked so well for pupils with behavioural problems that she is now often approached by teachers needing help with a difficult individual.

But she is reluctant, she says, for her work to he subsumed into a "special needs" category, and wants to make it accessible to everyone - pupils, parents and teachers.

Early signs that the programme is working include a drop in anxious phone-calls from parents, says Dempsey. The teachers, too, are beginning to ask why can't they have some stress management lessons themselves.

Monica Troughton can be contacted on: (phone/fax) 01295 690800, e-mail: dtroughton.cix.co.uk.

The Samaritans launch a Youth Pack looking at issues of depression,anxiety and suicide among young people on 26 May.

TIPS FOR A STRESS-FREE EXAM SEASON

FOR PUPILS

Get into a routine: Revise in short bursts (of about 15 to 30 minutes). Then take a break, go for a walk, play some music - and then go back to it.

Plan ahead: Prioritise what you need to work on - you do not have to revise every single thing you have ever been taught.

Look after yourself: Try to make sure that you sleep and eat well.

Make time for yourself: Keep something in your routine that is fun - like playing sport or watching a favourite television programme.

If you are interested in learning stress-management techniques, books can be useful. But there in nothing like hands-on experience at a class or workshop - usually one session is enough to start you off.

FOR PARENTS

A certain amount of stress is a good motivator, as long as it doesn't get out of hand. But a student who is basically relaxed will achieve better.

Your anxiety, if made too obvious, will only put extra stress on your child. Parents can be most useful if they step back a bit, and let children get on without interference.

Be supportive: Ask your child what you can do to help them.

Trust your child: They know what they have got to do. (NB: GCSEs are very different from exams in the past, and do not require committing so much to memory.)

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