End of year exam season can be a time of stress and anxiety for senior students, but the extraordinary events of this year have amplified those emotions.
Recognising this, schools, governments and communities across Australia are working hard to ensure that students are confident and focused when sitting their exams.
Currently, more than 76,000 NSW students are preparing to sit their HSC exams on 20 October along with SA students studying for their SACE exams on the same date. For Queensland students, they’ll be sitting their QCE exams the following week.
Despite a semblance of normality beginning to resurface, many students continue to struggle with nerves and anxieties that pre-date COVID-19 and worry that they might not be as prepared as their peers to sit, and succeed in, their exams.
Three academics – Erin Mackenzie, a lecturer in Education at Western Sydney University, Penny Van Bergen, an Associate Professor in Educational Psychology at Macquarie University and Roberto H Parada, a senior lecturer in Adolescent Development, Behaviour, Well-Being and Pedagogical Studies at Western Sydney University – have been looking into how schools can address this.
In a recent article published in The Conversation, Mackenzie, A/Prof Van Bergen and Parada shared five ways parents and carers of Year 12 students preparing for their final exams can support them.
1. Check in and listen
It is important to remember teenagers are often more resilient than we think. In most cases, they can cope well with challenges. But some students find exams more stressful than others, and some may also be worried about the influence of COVID on their future.
Research consistently shows parental monitoring that supports the autonomy of the young people is linked with their better psychological adjustment and performance during difficult times. This means checking-in with your teen, seeing how they are going and empowering them to use whatever coping skills they need.
Unfortunately, in times of stress, many parents use a high-monitoring low-autonomy style. Parents may still monitor their teen’s coping but also take over, hurry to suggest solutions, and criticise the strategies their child is trying.
This is a low-autonomy style, which may signal to the young person their parent doesn’t believe in their ability to cope.
So, to not come across as controlling or undermining their autonomy:
- ask your teen, “How are you coping?”
- listen to their answers
- check you have understood and ask if they need your support.
Let your actions be guided by their response. If they say “I’m very stressed”, ask if there is something you can do. You could say: “Tell me what you need to do and we’ll work it out together”.
If they do the famous “I dunno”, say something like “OK, think about it, I’ll come back in a bit, and we can chat”. Follow through and let them know you will check in more regularly over the coming weeks.
2. Encourage them to take care of their physical and mental health
Support your teen to get exercise, downtime and sleep. Exercise helps produce endorphins — a feel-good chemical that can improve concentration and mental health.
Downtime that is relaxing and enjoyable such as reading, sport, hanging out with friends or video games, can also help young people recharge physically and mentally. If you see your Year 12 child studying for numerous hours without a break, encourage them to do something more fun for a while.
A change of scene can help avoid burnout and helps students maintain focus over longer periods of time.
Good sleep is important for alertness, and teenagers should aim for eight to ten hours per day. Sleep also helps memory consolidation: a neural process in which the brain beds down what has been learnt that day.
Even short-term sleep deprivation, such as five hours across a week of study, can have a negative impact on teens’ mood, attention and memory.
To ensure your child priorises self-care, help them put together a routine. This may involve scheduling specific times for exercise, meals and downtime each day, and breaking up blocks of study time with short breaks.
Also negotiate a nominated time for them to turn their phone off at night. Stopping phone use one hour before bedtime can increase sleep.
3. Help them maintain connections
Connections with friends are critical for young people, especially during times of stress. Teens regularly talk about academic concerns online, and may use online support more when stressed. Research shows seeking support in person is more effective than doing so online, so try to encourage your teen to connect with friends in person if possible.
But also be aware of the risks. Talking with friends over and over about problems can actually make young people feel worse. Your son or daughter may find their friends are increasingly leaning on them for support too, which can exhaust their own emotional reserves.
Encourage your child to use time with friends as time away from studying. It’s OK to seek support from friends, but help your child think about when might be too much — and to have a balance of happy and serious conversations when they are together.
Encourage your child to continue talking to you and to ask their teachers for help with academic concerns.
4. Help your child understand their own brain
When asked, most young people report frequently using rehearsal — which involves simply going over textbooks, notes or other material — as a study technique. This is one of the least efficient memory strategies.
The more active the brain is when studying — by moving information around, connecting different types of information and making decisions — the more likely that information will be remembered. Active study sometimes feels harder, but this is great for memory.
5. Look out for warning signs
While most teens are resilient, some may more frequently report negative mood, uncertainties about the future or a loss of control. This is particularly true in 2020. You might hear evidence of “catastrophic thinking” (“what’s the point?” or “this is the worst thing ever”).
You can help by modelling hopeful attitudes and coping strategies. Reactive coping strategies are things like taking a break, selectively using distractions and going for a run to clear your head.
Pair these with proactive coping strategies, which prevent or help manage stressful situations. These include helping the young person get organised and reminding them that if they don’t have life figured out right now, that’s OK. Help them see opportunities that come with challenges. These include self-development (learning what they like and don’t like), self-knowledge (knowing their limits and character strengths) and skill development (organisational and coping strategies).
Some teens may be struggling more than they let on. Look out for warning signs. These can include:
- not participating in previously enjoyed activities
- avoiding friends or partners
- drastic changes in weight, eating or sleeping
- irritability over minor things
- preoccupation with death or expressing how difficult it is to be alive.
If these behaviours occur most of the time you are with them or seem out of character, consult a mental health professional as soon as possible. This is particularly so if your teen has a history of mental health concerns.
*This is an edited version of an article that was published in The Conversation.