Exams and Ramadan
It’s exam time. GCSE and A Levels began early this month and will last until the end of June, and many families across the UK will be affected. To give you an idea of the scale, this time last year more than 431,000 students sat exams during this short period. And let’s not forget the primary school SATs which also take place in May and those students at Universities who may be sitting end of year exams or Finals.
Exam season coincides with Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr festivities again this year – a situation that is expected to continue until 2023.
No young child is obliged or expected to fast, and young people take a personal decision how they should observe Ramadan with their families; in accordance with their religious guidance and their ability to combine both fasting and exams. For those students who do decide to fast, the temporary hardship of hunger and lack of liquids during fasting hours may impact on physical wellbeing and cognitive performance. For those young people that decide not to fast, they can be impacted as the majority of their friends, family and community will likely be taking part, and that can be an isolating experience in itself. Also the combination of long days, higher temperatures, and exams and tests will put extra pressure on young Muslims.
Here are some ideas on how to support students in your life – be they friends or family – including some tips for Ramadan.
Ensure they eat – and drink – well
Nutritious, balanced meals, food rich in complex carbohydrates and protein, fruit and vegetables served with plenty of water to drink will give students the energy they need for exams. Avoid high-fat, high-sugar and high-caffeine foods and drinks which will affect their energy levels and perhaps their mood.
In Ramadan: the same principles apply when it comes to nutritious and healthy food, with recognition that students may want to partake in some of the richer food that may be available at suhoor and iftar. While acknowledging they want to feel part of the activities, it might be worthwhile to limit it for the reasons described – both for students and the whole family. You can find out more ideas here.
Help them to get enough sleep
Good sleep improves thinking and concentration. Allow at least half an hour for students to wind down from studying before bed. Cramming the night before an important exam is usually a bad idea as it can encourage feelings of panic. A good night’s sleep will be more beneficial.
In Ramadan: in addition to getting as much sleep as possible (you may need to schedule in nap time during the day if the young student attended late night prayers), students should try to limit their physical activity during the day. This is even more important if it gets hot outside.
Don’t put them under pressure
Childline, a support group that delivered 3,135 counselling sessions on exam stress in 2016/17, said lots of the children who contacted them felt that most of the pressure came from their family, even though it may not be intentional. Here’s some suggestions that could help reduce the pressure:
• Acknowledge it is a stressful period and reassure them they can talk to you or someone else (a teacher, Childline for example) if they’re feeling stressed
• If they talk to you, really listen
• Ask them how you can best support them with their revision and exams
• Be reassuring, positive and calm yourself
• Give them somewhere comfortable and quiet to study
• If they feel they’ve not done well in exams, reassure them that, even if this is the case (they won’t know for sure until the results come out) they will be able to take them again.
In Ramadan: be aware that this period may be a particularly stressful time because the blessed month of Ramadan places an emphasis on inner reflection and deep contemplation, while they’re taking exams that could impact their future.
Help them to relax
Relaxation will help your student feel calm, more focused and better able to deal with stress and worries.
There are many ways to relax and it needs to be personal to be effective (for example, a long bath may be relaxing for some students and boring for others). So, encourage them to think of enjoyable activities to help make them feel calm, and then support them to set aside time to do it every day. This could include:
• meditation or prayer
• muscle relaxation
• breathing exercises
• going for a walk or spending time outside. Exercise is known to positively boost mood
• having a bath or shower
• watching a film, a TV show or listen to a podcast – especially if they find it funny
Also encourage them to take breaks. Even the most intense exam timetables will allow time for a study break and a little time away from books will leave students feeling more refreshed and relaxed the next time they revise.
In Ramadan: While most of these suggestions are appropriate, to conserve energy these students will need to limit physical activity and stay in the shade, if it gets hot.
Think of some ways to reward them for their revision efforts and getting through exams. They don’t need to be big or expensive rewards and can include simple things like making them their favourite meal or watching a film.
In Ramadan: if the rewards you agree upon require food, drink or any tiring activity, it might be a good idea to save them until the end of Ramadan.
The Association of Schools and College Leaders (ASCL) has worked with imams, Islamic scholars, experts, Muslim chaplains in the education sector and education leaders to produce Ramadan: Exams and Tests, 2019 Information for schools and colleges. It is designed to help start discussions with Muslim students on how best they can fulfil their Islamic obligations during Ramadan, including the obligation to perform well in their exams and tests. If you’re interested in reading it, you can find it here.