'Do not probe': Guidance counsellor's tips on how to help anxious students at exam time
After months and years of preparation, the class of 2019 are in the exam halls today for the first of their Leaving Cert written exams.
It is certain that in every home where you will find a student sitting the State exams, you will also find a high level of nerves and anxiety. These exams are a culmination of years of hard work from parents and students, and both are equally invested in the outcome.
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It is, perhaps, a more difficult time for parents as they are forced to watch this challenge from the sidelines. However, candidates are likely to settle into the new normal of the exams extremely quickly, and parents will notice the levels of anxiety decreasing rapidly over the next couple of days.
The exams kick off with English Paper 1, which is taken by every candidate, followed by Home Economics in the afternoon.
The Leaving Cert timetable has been extended this year to take into account the increase in the range of subjects examined. This is an attempt to ensure that a minimal number of candidates will have to sit three exams on the one day. This move is intended to support the students' wellbeing during this period. So how can parents help support their young person through this challenge?
At this point in the process, there is little you can do but feed them, support them and help them stay calm. Keep the house quiet, the food coming and ask them what they need.
All parents are concerned about how their young person will perform and how they will manage. It is impossible to control this part of a child's experience and trying to do so will only add to their stress.
Try to remember that stress is contagious. Just like toddlers, teenagers and young adults will look to their parents for reassurance and cues on how they should react. If a young person is disappointed with how the exam went or is starting to panic about their ability to succeed, a parent's reaction can have a huge influence on their ability to bounce back.
It is essential to avoid post-mortems. Going over an exam will increase everyone's anxiety levels and have no impact on the result. A parent might think it helpful to ask a child how an exam went, in which case accept their answer and do not probe. If a candidate feels badly after an exam, you should encourage them to forget about it and move on.
Students usually do better in exams than they think at the time.
If your young person tends to worry, remind them of all they have achieved, explain why you think they will achieve again and try and focus on the present and actions within their control.
For example, a parent could offer this advice: 'I know you think that exam went badly but we tend to only remember what we couldn't do, not what we did well. You have been doing really well in that subject all year, so it is probably not as bad as you think. Either way, it's over now and you did your best. I am certain that it is enough because you always do really well when you try hard. Let's take a little rest today and have a nice lunch. Then, later, you can do a little study for tomorrow and I will help you with anything you might need.'
Candidates may have study plans to see them through to the last exam. Maintaining balance over the days and weeks ahead is key and parents can support them to be fully present in their revision and in their breaks.
Aoife Walsh is a guidance counsellor at Malahide Community School, Co Dublin