The Leaving Cert years: How to mind yourself

With the mountain of work ahead, a ‘study-life’ balance seems impossible, but these experts show it can be done

Sofia Gutsaeva and Emma Kennedy who attend Jesus and Mary College, Goatstown, in Dublin,  and Luke Pendlebury, who is a student at Coláiste Éanna, Rathfarnham, Dublin. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Sofia Gutsaeva and Emma Kennedy who attend Jesus and Mary College, Goatstown, in Dublin, and Luke Pendlebury, who is a student at Coláiste Éanna, Rathfarnham, Dublin. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

The Leaving Cert years can be all a little overwhelming. The workload seems to grow and grow and it might seem like all you can – or, indeed, should – do is study.

Putting your entire life on hold, however, isn’t a good idea. It’s important to try to stay active, maintain relationships with family and friends, and eat well.

We’ve all heard of a “work-life” balance, but how can a student have a “study-life” balance?

We asked experts including a career guidance counsellor, PE teacher, dietitian, and clinical psychologist for their advice on how to navigate fifth and sixth year and still manage to hang on to a semblance of a teenage life.

 

The guidance counsellor

Fergal Scully is a guidance counsellor at Rathmines College of Further Education and works with Leaving Cert and further education students. “How can a student manage their time well? Set aside space for a social life and physical activity, even if it’s just getting out of the house and around the block to get the blood flowing. Try to keep your friendships up so you can talk about what you’re going through and have a laugh with other people who are in the same boat.

“Having a rigorous schedule isn’t for everyone, but do manage your time in terms of what is best for you. Make sure to have some variety. If you’re studying hard, take half an hour to watch a TV show or call in to a friend.

“Remember that without physical activity, the brain starts to slow down so if you’re not physically fit and getting lots of oxygen to the brain, the brain isn’t fit for study.

“If you are into football and want to do well at the match, you need to practise.

“It’s the same with study: if you want to do well in the exam, you need to practise the exam. Do lots of exam questions in exam conditions, giving yourself the allocated time to answer a question, then seeing how you did and returning to it the next day if needs be.

“Students can get hung up on deciding what college courses to take. They don’t need to be worrying from the start of fifth year. When the time comes, what they should be considering is not what they want to do with the rest of their life, but this: what is the best next step for me to take?

“If they know they want to be a vet or doctor, great, but there are plenty of general college courses like science or arts where students can get a more general flavour and specialise farther down the road.”

 

The psychologist

Mark Smyth is a senior clinical psychologist working with the Psychological Society of Ireland and youth mental health charity, ReachOut.com.

“Of course exams are a source of stress. This can be reduced by not leaving it until the last minute. Sitting an exam is a skill and any skill needs practice, so in times of greater stress, what you’ve learned will come back.

“Look after yourself now. Teenagers need about nine or 10 hours’ sleep. More introverted teens can tend to withdraw, spending more time in their room or caught up in their own worries, but staying active, whether through sport or just going for a walk, releases endorphins in the brain.

“Stay social and interact with people. Snapchat, Xbox and Twitter are not real-world social interactions. I encourage young people to get into something structured, such as a club or society, where you can meet people with similar interests and build friendships.

“If you’re not sporty but, for instance, are interested in technology, there are coding clubs around the country.

“Sometimes teenagers are scared not to go with the status quo for fear of not fitting in, but this is a good time to explore identity. Try new music, take up a martial art if you want. Shape your own personality.

“Some young people can suffer from social anxiety, which makes it all the more important to practise interacting with people. I would never tell them not to worry about it: anxiety is an emotion and you can’t tell someone not to feel something. But it will usually pass. If you experience it, bear in mind it’s likely at least some of your classmates are too.

“It’s important for young people if they feel stress, worry or anxiety to have at least one adult they can talk to, whether a parent or relative, friend or guidance counsellor.

“Stay active. It helps relieve stress. That said, we need rest as well. You don’t always need to be doing something. It’s good to not always be stimulated. Watching a movie, meditating, or reading a book are all good ways of winding down.”

 

The dietitian

Louise Reynolds is a dietitian with the Irish Nutrition and Dietetics Institute. “Breakfast really is important to stay alert and concentrate on school in the morning. Hydration is also really important throughout the day, both in school and afterwards: this doesn’t mean you drink coffee non-stop; just make sure you drink water during the day.

“It can be tempting to rely on jellies or chocolate for a quick sugar fix. Your brain does need sugar but it’s much better to get it from a source that also contains nutrients. If you want a snack, have some Weetabix with low-fat milk, or fruit.

“Nuts such as almonds, cashews and pistachios, perhaps mixed with fresh or dried fruit, is a good option. Popcorn is better than crisps.

“On social media, you’ll come across new buzzwords and trends such as ‘juicing’, ‘detoxing’ or ‘clean eating’. You don’t need to juice your fruit or vegetables to get the best of them; just eat them.

“There’s no good time to go on a fad diet, but during the Leaving Cert years is a particularly bad time to start cutting out food groups or to try some obscure diet that will have an impact on your general health and wellbeing.

“Try to stay as active as possible. It can seem overwhelming at exam time, but there’s a large body of research which shows that students who stay involved in sport tend to do better at exam time.”

 

The PE teacher

Fergal Lyons is president of the Physical Education Association of Ireland (PEAI) and a PE teacher at Ardscoil Rís in Limerick.

“Exercise can often go by the wayside during the Leaving Cert years. I understand why, but it’s a big mistake. The international evidence is very clear: children and young people who are physically active achieve more academically.

“Not everybody loves sport or is a wonderful athlete, but the aim of PE is to make students aware of healthy living and diet and what it means to be physically active.

“Students need to find some kind of outlet or physical activity: it’s a great distraction, it’s a stress-reliever, it builds self-esteem and it regenerates the body and increases concentration.

“It can be GAA training, going for a run, Pilates, going to the gym or even a walk. There’s an outlet for everybody. If you don’t like organised sports, there is running or taekwondo or swimming.

“Bear in mind that being inactive is, in fact, a far bigger killer than obesity. Somebody who is overweight and active can be far healthier than a lean, inactive person.

“Students should aim for two hours per week of exercise; anything more is a bonus. About 30-40 minutes of moderate to intense physical activity, where you can feel a burn, brings huge benefits.”

Students’ survival tactics We asked four students, all of whom are involved with youth mental health charity ReachOut.com, how they plan to get through the Leaving Cert years.

 

Emma Kennedy and Sofia Gutsaeva are both 16-year-old students entering fifth year at the Jesus and Mary College in Goatstown, Dublin.

Dean O’Reilly, (16), is a sixth-year student at Coláiste na hInse in Bettystown, Co Meath, while Luke Pendlebury is in fifth year at Coláiste Éanna in Rathfarnham, Dublin.

“We’ve been told to be prepared for a hard year, so I do feel a bit stressed,” says Sofia. “But I want to make sure I have time for a life after schools. I will meet up with friends and stay involved in activities. As well as being involved in ReachOut.com, I take part in the Cór na nÓg youth choir and work with the environmental charity Eco-Unesco. It would be grim to only have study.”

Emma plans to keep up her involvement with St John’s Ambulance and also attends a stage school. “I think it’s going to be more important than ever to have another outlet away from school. For me, it’s a matter of staying organised.”

Luke expects that some parts of his life will go on the back burner.

“School will have to come first. I’ll be putting aside kickboxing to focus on study but I’ll make sure to have some other outlets and keep socialising: I’m looking forward to the school musical.”

The pressures on sixth-year Dean loom somewhat larger.

“I enjoy school and studying and am involved in the life of the school as a prefect. I know it’s important to balance study and life so I will try to keep on top of study as the year begins, rather than letting it all build up, and make time and space for socialising.”

All four students say that they’ll try to eat well, making sure to, at the very least, grab breakfast on their way out the door. And they all say they’ll be keeping active, to varying degrees.

Sofia plans to take up a sport to clear her mind and stay active. Luke will be going for his silver Gaisce award and plans to hit the gym. And Dean finds that simply taking the dog for a walk clears his mind.

Staying well at school: advice from psychologists School is a different experience for everyone, so the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI) and ReachOut Ireland have put together some tips for students and parents:

 

Students: Being active improves mood, decreases anxiety and ensures a good night’s sleep. Go for a big walk, run or cycle.

Set goals this year, whether they’re focused in or out of the class. Having a focus and a goal helps with self-esteem.

Take up an instrument or new sport.

Taking part in sports clubs or extra-curricular activities allows you to get to know people outside the class and can help reduce anxiety.

It’s normal to worry about fitting in, making friends and how people think about you. You’re not alone and would be surprised how many people feel the same. Be patient with yourself and resist the temptation to avoid social opportunities.

Family, friends and school counsellors and year heads will want to help, so talk to them if you’re feeling anxious. Don’t just keep the feelings in your head.

If these feelings last longer than expected and you start to miss school, discuss additional support options with your GP.

If you’re panicking walking through the school gates, just take a minute and remember to breathe; it really helps with feeling calm again.

 

Parents:

You might feel anxious too, but when talking to your child, use reassurance sparingly. Too much reassurance will prevent them learning to reassure themselves.

Acknowledge and understand the anxiety, don’t dismiss it. Listen and empathise.

Don’t support the option of avoiding school.

Your advice We asked the Twitter machine for tips about how to keep a balance between study and living during the Leaving Cert years:

A kickaround outdoors with my brothers every evening helped work off nervous tension, & I made sure to get plenty of sleep – @StanCarey

Mental & physical health as important as academic achievement. My son who is blind joined weekly gym as PE class – @LkellyoconnorO

Read a lot! Told myself that it was ‘study’ for the English paper, but it was really escapism from the stress – @ZoeAlicia101

[There’s]no 1 size fits all approach. Different personalities suit different study environments & routines. Don’t use others’ standards – @glennthefitz

Spent my time texting my new girlfriend and not studying anywhere near as much as my mammy thought – @conorsthoughts

Get up early on Sunday for bfast/coffee with a friend, then part ways to be in library by 11. Do something nice to ease in – @rosalindcaragh

I was super busy with extra-curriculars and cycled to every exam, if I took a break, the stress crept in, so I kept busy! – @joannaissu

Simply put; I didn’t. Found it hard to keep fit and guzzled energy drinks as exams loomed close! Enjoyed PE a lot though! – @TharLear

Timetables and lists were my lifeline because it meant that I didn’t feel guilty about taking time out because I had scheduled it in. I also just made sure I kept up ballet , drama and writing and so forth so I had social spaces and outlets to relax.

– @E_dayEccentric

I didn’t – @laoiselaoise