• Young people around the country have had their traditional end-of-school rite of passage taken away in the face of the coronavirus pandemic

  • Therapist Vic Leeson shares the thoughts of two young people affected and offers advice to 15 and 16-year-olds who are coming to terms with an unexpected ending

  • Many of our therapists work with young people – start your search here 

The sense of occasion that comes at the end of a young person’s school career is usually filled with celebration, relief, achievement, emotional goodbyes, new-found freedoms and the anticipation of new beginnings. For the first time in our lifetimes, in 2020, this wasn’t to be for thousands of Year 11’s across the country.

Just over a week ago schoolchildren in England were informed that their schools were to be closed as part of rapid wrath of measures being put in place to halt the spread of Covid-19;  the global pandemic that we are all currently experiencing.

This un-anchoring has caused a maelstrom of feelings for many of the 15 and 16-year-olds involved. Not only were their school careers being cut short with very little notice – less than 24 hours for some – the months that lay ahead are filled with uncertainty. Whilst some young people are relieved at the thought of not having to sit exams others are feeling stressed at the current lack of certainty and lack of routine.

Endings and loss

The feeling of loss that many young people will be feeling is acknowledged by Mia, 15: “When I found out school was closing I felt frustrated that I took the five years I was in school for granted, it was an extremely emotional time for me. It made me realise how much I actually loved school and the people there, both teachers and students. I felt frustrated that I went from having three months left at school to two days, it felt like there wasn’t enough time to do and say all the things I wanted before I left school forever”.

Many people have said goodbye to their friends of five years or more, to their teachers who have been their educators and support systems and to a way of life that has been in place since they can remember. A school lifetime spent planning for academic achievement along with anticipating the numerous celebrations to mark the end of a school career have all been jeopardised; leavers assemblies, school concerts, shirt signings and proms.

Fortunately for Mia she says: “My school were amazing at organising the last two days of school to be special for year 11. They prepared a t-shirt signing and a leavers’ assembly for us on the last day. This gave us a chance to feel more prepared to leave and to say goodbye to our teachers – it was upsetting knowing that would be the last time we would ever see a lot of people but we got to say a proper goodbye which I am very grateful for”.


Life without exams 

Others comment on how life will be without exams. Will, 16, says: “Knowing that exams were cancelled was a shock as this is what we work towards over all our school years but I was relieved and  happy as well. I am happy with predicted grades and it takes a weight off my shoulders knowing I do not have to do them”.

For those about to sit exams these are now cancelled and grades are to be based on teachers’ judgements of how each individual pupils would have performed were they to have sat their GCSE’s.

Mia, 15, has mixed feelings about the new circumstances regarding exams: “I personally think this will be a much fairer representation of my ability than the GCSE’s would have been, as there are days where you have the odd bad test which could happen in a GCSE - my class work is a true representation of what I am capable of. However, it still is disappointing that I won’t be sitting my GCSE’s as the predicted grades don’t feel like as much of an achievement - it kind of feels like I’ve just done five years of work for nothing”.

Will, 16, gives another perspective: “For the people who did not try in the mocks it will be harder for them and they should be given an opportunity to re-sit although teacher assessments should show they can get a higher grade in most subjects”.

GCSE grades for all current Year 11’s are expected to be available at some point in July.

Uncertain future 

What now for the country’s 15- and 16-year-olds? Naturally there are feelings of uncertainty as Mia confirms: “I feel like there is a lot of uncertainty, as if there is a lot less purpose to my life without revision to do or school to attend”. Will raises another point: “Part of me is excited to have a break and not worry about getting up early. But it will be harder seeing friends frequently and to keep myself occupied”.

In terms of supporting the country’s young people, Mia thinks: “It should be made clear to students exactly what they need to be doing now – any work we could be doing in order to support us with getting into college or sixth form. There was no time to prepare ourselves for this massive change in our lives and we are now left wondering what the purpose of our lives is. This is a massive change and not an easy one”. Will remains hopeful but aware of the uniqueness of the situation him and his peers find themselves in: “I hope I get the grades I deserve. There is a weird feeling knowing this will be a historic year and I will not be in school for a while”.

So how can this age group support themselves over the coming months, where can they find their purpose? 

Here are some tips for any fifteen or sixteen year olds in your lives on how to adapt to this new reality.

Processing the ending: advice for young people

Some of you may have been lucky enough to have been able to have some celebration to mark the end of the school year but you still may feel like you want to do more. Are there certain people that you didn’t get to say goodbye to? Yes, social media will allow you to connect to those people in some way but not all – especially the adults that may have supported you.

Can you use the time you now have to write a letter or a card and post on to school for your teacher or support staff to receive? Do you have photos on your phone, laptop or tablet that you can print off and make an album with? Even the process of going through the photos can help you remember your school based experiences.


Dealing with uncertainty

It may feel like there are no certainties at the moment. When will I be able to see my friends again? Will I get the GCSE grades I think I deserve? It’s frustrating as no one has the answers but what we do know is this situation that we find ourselves in is temporary – we just don’t know how long for. What we do know is that the government have announced that GCSE grades will be given out in July and Sixth Forms and Colleges will need students to be enrolled.

Spending a  little time worrying isn’t necessarily a problem, it give us ideas of any actions that we need to take but it can feel overwhelming when it is all we are doing. You might find it helpful to note down any of your worries and chat these through with someone you trust.  Notice your worries and acknowledge them but try not to let them distract you. If you can create a plan focussing on what you can do and how you want to be it may help your worries to reduce and bring about some calm.

Think about what is meaningful in your life right now and what is important? It might be that you need to think about new ways to connect with and support your friends, family and neighbours.

Alternative activities

Keep yourself well-informed is important but also give yourself time to try different things.

When our brains are perceiving uncertainty or distress we can enter “survival mode”. This means our heart rate may increase, our breathing is different, our bodies feel tense. Sometimes being in survival mode also impacts the parts of the brain that control our attention, our concentration even our  speech. To help reduce that distress, we must release it in a bodily way through moving our bodies. Activities like yoga, meditation or being outside in nature – being in your garden or a public space for half an hour a day – will all help with this and it’s important you include these in your daily routine.

When we are able to move and allow our bodies to release us from survival mode we are then more able to relax. To further keep yourself calm you may want to try some more creative activities – ones that you may not usually engage in but can keep you absorbed; drawing, painting and writing for example. You could even make a memory box to remind you of your school years, make a stress ball or journal your favourite memories of school.

Self-care and support

In the simplest of terms this means looking after yourself and the most basic need we have is to look after our bodies. This means getting a decent amount of sleep. Someone of your age needs 8 – 10 hours of sleep a night. You also need to eat well and regularly with nutritious meals so you are giving your body the energy it needs. As mentioned above, exercise is also important.

Self-care can also be caring for yourself in an emotional way. It’s important to be remember to be kind to yourself. You may be feeling all sorts of things and whatever you are feeling is normal – there is no right or wrong way to be feeling at the moment. You may be feeling angry, disappointed, worried, excited, scared, relieved – whatever you feel is valid because they are your feelings. If the inner voice in your head is telling you otherwise it might be time to have a compassionate word with it!

Think about who are the people you can talk to? Who are the people that you can trust? Talking your feelings through with others will help.

You can’t control what is happening in the wider world but you can have some control over your response to the situation; hopefully some of the ideas in this article may help with that.

Vic Leeson is a verified welldoing.org therapist in Leeds - she also offers online sessions

Further reading

Free sessions for NHS workers fighting covid-19

Self-care tips from an introvert: making the most of self-isolation

6 YouTube videos for mindfulness meditation

Grounding exercise to regulate anxiety during the coronavirus pandemic

The benefits of therapy for young people: telling your story

Therapist advice if coronavirus has triggered health anxiety and OCD