Coping with exam stress

Professor Fiona McNicholas

Professor Fiona McNicholas

Offering tea and sympathy, nagging, staying out of the firing line or being the calm voice of reason. These are some of the strategies 110,000 parents throughout the country are using as the Junior and Leaving Certificate examinations loom large on the horizon.

With 10 days to go many students are frantically thumbing through notes and trying desperately to cram reams of information into already weary brains. Well meaning parents are trying to help them prepare and get through the stressful days ahead.

One of the important things to remember is that each child is different and there is not a standarised approach as such to managing exam stress, says Professor Fiona McNicholas, a consultant and adolescent child psychiatrist at the Lucena Clinic in Dublin and Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin. She gave a talk on coping with exam stress to parents in Galway recently which was hosted by Atlantic College.

“There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach,” she says. “Parents know their children, if things are not going well they will be able to figure out what’s not working. Gentle, continuous encouragement can be very helpful.”

God study habits

Most students are anxious about the exams. “The majority would have some level of anxiety. A small percentage are not bothered, they could not care less. This is something they feel they have to do. Another small percentage have overwhelming anxiety.”

She advises parents to give plenty of support in the lead-up to June 9. Be on hand to listen, encourage, motivate and provide tender, loving, care. Help them perfect good study habits and maintain a balanced lifestyle.

Aim to create a calm, warm atmosphere in the home which is conducive to study. “Help them have good study habits. It their desk is a mess it is hard to be organised. Get them to develop a study timetable if they have not done so already or they may need to revise a previous one. Students could list the time left and how many chapters in science, for example, they have left to revise. Having a plan is important. They could be doing two or three hours a night but be overdoing one subject. Doing up a timetable will guard against this. Sometimes teachers will have done this already with students.

“They need to recognise what they have not done and what needs to be done. In the case of a student who has done very little you are talking about damage limitation. They need to review the damage and prioritise. They might need to go up to gear five. There is almost two weeks left so there is still is time to work.

‘The child should go in and talk to the teachers and find out the questions that are likely to come up and then cover those. They still have time and this problem solving with the aid of the teacher will help.”

Be inventive

When studying, people are generally fresher in the morning, she says. “Start with the easier topic, then the more difficult one and end with the easier ones again. Be inventive with revision, use highlights, colour and drawings, put Pythagoras’s theorum on an ipod to rap music. Learning through different senses can be helpful.”

If their motivation is waning remind them that this stressful period will be over soon, she says. “The agony of study is limited and then summer will be here. A healthy diet is important as well as getting sufficient sleep and exercise. A healthy body is a healthy mind.”

It is important to put the exam in perspective and to be there for your child, according to Professor McNicholas. “It is not the be all and the end all of everything. If a child is over studying or very anxious then a parent’s priority is to help them relax.

“Get them to physically relax through deep breathing, listening to gentle music and going for long walks. Encourage them to take each day as it comes and to say calm things to themselves. Often overwhelming anxiety is linked to irrational thoughts, for example thinking ‘If I don’t get an A I’ll be no good.’ Tell them they’ve always done well and it’s very unlikely that they’ll do badly. Keep the positive statement and encouragement up.

“Children are like big babies at this time. Try to be on hand to offer tea and healthy snacks, such as apples, fruit. Be encouraging, talk them through revision.”

Professor McNicholas offers the following advice:-

Exam focus

Physical health

* Food

* Sleep

* Moderate caffeine,

* Modify lifestyle

Cognitive health

* Help them keep perspective

* Encourage problem solving

* Model problem solving

* Encourage them to believe it is important - it is their exam

Emotional health

* Relaxation techniques - breathing, counting, distraction, walks, etc

* Talk about it

* Be there for your child

* Keep the positive statements and encouragement up

* Unconditional love and support

* Balance between insistence and flexibility in timetables, nagging and support

Be aware of your own stress. Mind yourself!

Causes of stress

External causes

* Other people expecting too much and pressurising you

* A sudden unexpected change

* Having to be in a social situation where you don’t feel comfortable, ie, social anxiety towards exam hall

Internal causes

* Being a perfectionist

* Having too high expectations of yourself

* Being a pessimist

* Working too hard/trying too hard

* Not managing your time well

* Unreasonable beliefs, ie, “I won’t be liked if I am not the best”

Symptoms of stress

Physical symptoms

* Loss of appetite

* Headaches

* Sleeplessness

* Difficulty breathing

* Heart palpitations

* Perspiring

* Panic attacks

Psychological symptoms

* Feeling angry

* Impatient

* Irritable or intolerant

* Poor concentration

* Feeling overwhelmed and helpless

Social support

* Notice them

* Praise them

* Positive regard

* Acknowledge feelings

* Have them view the situation more positively

* Involve family and friends

* Encourage them to learn co-operatively not competitively

Develop good study habits

* Timetable

* Preparation

* Frequent breaks

* Morning is best

* Mix hard and easy

* Avoid late night cramming

* Use mind mapping, key words, summaries, revision notes

* Discuss revision topics with people - make it fun, interesting, frequent

* An exercised body is good for the mind

* Reward yourself with pleasurable activities

Exam day

* Time management

* Exam technique

* Prepare for “panic’

* Remember pens, etc

* Avoid too much post exam scrutiny

* Develop good strategies for the next set

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