Testing times: Stress management during the exams - for students and parents

Routine is as important as a sense of calm during exam time. Picture: iStock

The Leaving Cert is a stressful time for most students. Experts tell Arlene Harris how parents can best respond if their child’s exams don’t go according to plan

For at least two years, teachers and parents have been reminding students of the importance of the Leaving Cert exams — the need to concentrate, be organised and to stay focused drilled daily into thousands of teenagers all over the country.

But the wait is almost over as next week the first exams finally get underway.

While many students will see the exams as a challenge to be tackled, others will feel immense pressure and possibly a sense of impending doom. But the anticipation is often worse than the execution.

Clinical psychologist Deirdre O’Donnell says staying calm is the best way to get through the next couple of weeks, so it’s crucial for parents to refrain from adding to the tension.

“Many students feel that most pressure at exam time comes from their parents so it is vital to give them support and avoid criticism,” she says.

Students are already stressed enough ... so make it abundantly clear that your love for them is unconditional and not dependent on how they do in the Leaving Cert.

After a difficult exam, she advises, give them space to unwind before gently encouraging them to talk about it.

“Try focusing on the parts that went well rather than on the parts that did not. Get them to focus on the next exam and think of something that can be a mini reward or treat (such as making their favourite meal) to help lift their spirits.”

Psychotherapist Stella O’Malley says routine is just as important as a sense of calm. “It’s all about the patterns when it comes to food, sleep and exercise,” she says. “However, if the student’s physical habits are chaotic then their work will also be erratic.”

Many students enjoy the adrenalin rush of cramming late into the night. “But often these late-night events can result in emotional meltdowns the next day and so what they gain late at night, they lose the next day as they become too upset to study,” she says.

“This is why so much importance is placed on a healthy diet, regular exercise and healthy sleep patterns — the emotional crash from unhealthy patterns can be very disturbing.”

Stress is an inevitable part of the process but Breda Whelan, guidance counsellor at Rice College, Ennis, says it can be minimised by being prepared.

“Students should be very strategic and know exactly what they need to do in each exam,” she says.

“Be familiar with the layout of the paper, the number of questions to be answered, choices between questions and the marking scheme. To begin, I would suggest reading the whole paper thoroughly and then picking questions to answer. Start with those you feel most confident about first and make sure to complete the sections with the most marks.

“Also make sure to have all the equipment necessary — calculator and permission for log tables, pens — different types can be helpful — markers, pencils, erasers, toppers and plenty of water.

During the exams, the best piece of advice is to stay calm and connected by balancing studying and self-care — sleep, good food, exercise, relaxation and fun — to ensure you are at your optimum.

Ensuring your student stays calm and is prepared is essential, but Deirdre O’Donnell says the exam can awaken anxieties in parents as they remember their own fears of failure and public scrutiny. But, she says it is important not to pass these feelings on to your own child.

“Parents might have concerns that their child is not taking the exam seriously or doing sufficient study to pass and this can leave them feeling overwhelmed and helpless in helping their child to navigate the journey through revision and exam preparation,” she says.

“But students can experience exam anxiety in many different ways and apparent or perceived indifference can be one. It doesn’t mean that the student isn’t serious about the exam but is attempting to control their anxiety by avoiding facing the reality of the situation. Parental criticism and anxiety are not helpful in these instances.

“Students can also appear to give up on themselves and fall at the last hurdle. So it’s important, without being accused of nagging, to remind them that they have already come through 13 to 14 years of education and that they have achieved so much in that time, so giving up on themselves would be such a shame.”

When tensions are running high it’s important to choose your words wisely.

Avoid using the word ‘disappointment’, advises O’Donnell.

“Say instead that whatever they get you will be proud of them and value them as your child, rather than impressing on them that they’re a disappointment and a failure or, worse, that they will never get anywhere [if they don’t do well].”

Indeed if the exams don’t go as hoped, the psychologist says parents should encourage their child to think about their goals and how they can be achieved. “It’s important for you not to panic or get angry but instead help your child to look at all options available to him or her, if they do not do well in the exam.”

Joanna Fortune, clinical psychotherapist and author of 15 Minute Parenting, says it’s important to keep things in perspective.

“The Leaving Cert is one path to the future, but it is certainly not the only one,” she says.

If they don’t do as well as they hoped in the exams, stay calm and look at the other options available — it might take an extra year or two to get there, but there are many other doors to the future and it’s important for your child to know, that they still have a bright future in front of them.

Exam tips

  • Print out your exam timetable and keep it close to hand.
  • Be aware of the marking scheme and choose questions with highest marks first.
  • Read questions carefully and plan which you will answer and how.
  • Manage your time efficiently and bring a watch into exams.
  • Be prepared with all the necessary stationary, equipment and water.
  • Get enough sleep, relaxation and exercise.
  • Eat healthily and don’t skip meals. Try not to get stressed and remember there are other options if things don’t go your way.

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