‘You are more than your Leaving Cert’: How to balance stress and study
Take breaks, talk it out and get organised to help manage exam anxiety and burn-out
‘Take a screen detox to keep your brain operating at full capacity and to aid better sleep...Try some guided meditations and exercise to calm the system.’ Photograph: iStock
It is that time of year again with the build up to the Leaving Certificate. In many homes across the country, every family member is dragged into this race for points and first-preference places. Others fret and sweat, unsure as to what they want to do when they finish school.
Some former examinees still have that recurring nightmare of sitting the exam unprepared or caught out. As with every significant event in life, whatever lies within the person erupts in the midst of pressure.
Research conducted by DCU and Trinity College Dublin revealed that students are relying on rote learning and memory recall, which puts significant stress on them, leading to burn-out. A report from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) found that these exams crush creativity and contribute to test-focussed teaching. There are also a vast number of students undertaking grinds or revision courses to boost their knowledge of the curriculum.
The system may work well for those who are robust, living in supportive environments and suited to that type of learning, but it does not reflect the potential that others may have
Students come to the exams with a myriad of factors – some with learning challenges, others grieving or struggling with difficult familial conditions, or serious physical or mental-health conditions. After all, approximately 75 per cent of serious mental-health difficulties manifest between 15 and 25 years of age and Ireland has the fourth-highest suicide rate in the European Union among this age group.
Is throwing a load of exams which decide their futures over a couple of weeks a healthy process?
While the system may work well for those who are robust, living in supportive environments and suited to that type of learning, it does not reflect the potential that others may have.
Year after year, I see students who come to me for support as they crumble under the strain. Anxiety, performance anxiety, panic attacks, depression, burn-out, anger and severe stress all feature. For some struggling with addictions or past traumas, this exam may be the final straw.
With such a build-up and pressure placed on a series of exams in a short period, the stress hormone cortisol can get out of control. This has physiological effects and can impair brain-cell communication in areas associated with learning and memory. Relationships at home become tense as parents struggle to find a healthy boundary with their children between being involved but not too pushy. Students often report bombardment with “How come you are not studying?”, “You are throwing your future away”, “You have your Leaving Cert in a few months”.
The thirst for knowledge and love of learning is getting lost
It is a period when the parental control is challenged as you can’t study for them and they won’t study for you. Everything becomes about the Leaving Cert, and, in a way, it is the whole family taking it. Adrenalised homes creak as everything gets blown out of proportion and underlying emotional and psychological challenges explode behind closed doors.
The Leaving Cert is one of life’s big examples of how people respond differently to every situation. Some sail through, while others buckle under the pressure.
Indeed, there can be learning in the process. Students have an opportunity to develop coping skills, face underlying conditions, learn about themselves, seek help and build self-reliance. These are invaluable life skills, but not achievable for all. This pressure on the big exam is trickling down further and further to younger classes. The thirst for knowledge and love of learning is getting lost.
Nationally, schools are rated by points achieved and teachers are under pressure to get results. Fair and healthy competition is part of life, but is this really fair to all competitors?
Another issue of concern is that students are giving up sports and extra-curricular activities to study. This promotes a negative approach to work-life balance and blitzing, which leads to burn-out.
So what is the way forward to assessing our young people while protecting their mental health?
Some movement is rolling out, such as school-based access to counselling, and PE as a Leaving Cert subject. The Government curriculum advisory board, the NCCA is engaged in reform of the senior cycle. In surveys conducted for the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, it was found that teachers, students and parents all agreed that the Leaving Cert needs to be radically reformed. In the best interests of the well-being of our youth, it is time for all relevant groups to propose more all-inclusive options.
Keep it all in perspective. There are options such as PLC courses or back-door ways into your preferred course. You are more than your Leaving Cert
In the mean-time if you are sitting these exams this June, here are some ways to protect your mental health:
- If you are feeling overwhelmed, talk it out with a close family member, friend, teacher or counsellor. If symptoms are severe, discuss them with your GP. Access school support. From my experience with students, schools are supportive, once informed. Options such as sitting exams in a separate room, regular meet ups with assigned teachers or a quiet place to go in school can be worked out.
- Draft out a study timetable for each subject with estimated time frames.
- Take it in hourly and weekly steps. Focus on what you can do in this moment on this day. If procrastination is blocking you, open a school book and just read.
- Choose an optimal place to study whether that is at home, after school or at the library. Be aware of your optimal time of day and study the toughest work then.
- You know what study method works best for you so stick to it, just enhance it. Organise all your notes and study resources. It is about strategy so practise exams with past papers and time yourself. You know more than you think. It is in there.
- If you hit a wall, get up, move, go for a walk, do some stretches, have a shower and return to it within the hour.
- Avoid blitzing. It is not about the length of time studied but productive time. Take regular breaks and study in chunks for better retention. Take one or two study-free days per week.
- Eat regularly, drink plenty of water and take a screen detox to keep your brain operating at full capacity and to aid better sleep. Keep an eye on the adrenaline and cortisol levels. Try some guided meditations and exercise to calm the system.
- Keep away from hysteria or stressful Leaving Cert talk.
- Keep it all in perspective. There are options such as PLC courses or back-door ways into your preferred course. You are more than your Leaving Cert.
Families need to keep the environment as calm as possible during this peak time. Operating like a study detective just adds to the student’s adrenaline. Many students will release their stress on their nearest and dearest. Family rows are not conducive to optimal study. Focus on the relationship, non-study related chats, watching a movie together or engaging in relaxing and soothing activities. Take steps to calm yourself to be their calming presence.
Let them know your love for them is not conditional on what they get in the Leaving Cert. While change can be threatening to many, it is time for reform of a system still largely stuck in the 1960s.