As exam season starts, teenagers’ stress levels will shoot up. But there are many ways to reduce the pressure
Exam season is starting. Most secondary school students will be starting into their school-based exams next week, while the Junior and Leaving Certificate exams start in two weeks.
I could imagine in that context that stress levels are high for many teenagers. Those who aren’t particularly stressed themselves may well have a mother or father who is stressed on their behalf. The final run in to exams is a particularly pressured time and there may be different reasons that explain the stresses individual teenagers are experiencing.
One cohort of students may be feeling an anticipatory anxiety that is heightened by a fear of the unknown. First year students, for example, have never experienced secondary school summer exams and may not know quite what level of performance is expected of them. Even the mock exams that Junior and Leaving Cert students have done may not have fully prepared them for what the actual exam conditions will feel like.
With the Leaving Cert especially, the changes to the exams to increase choice (since this group of students have had particularly disrupted learning due to Covid), also means that the usual preparation of doing past papers may not feel fully helpful. It is very hard to counter this kind of fear of the unknown, as uncertainty always creates a greater anticipation and requires much higher levels of vigilance to be able to react and respond.
The key way to deal with this particular kind of anxiety is to focus on those elements you do have control over more than thinking about the elements you can’t control. This means making sure you are putting in the time for study, making sure you are balancing study time with leisure and with rest, making sure your nutrition is good and making sure you have all the materials with you on the day for the given exams.
A second group of students may be anxious because they feel overwhelmed by the volume of work to be done, and the short time left to do it. This kind of anxiety is exactly the kind of anxiety that can lead to procrastination. I have written before how procrastination is caused less by laziness and more by anxiety.
So those students who have great intentions of doing well, but have left their study preparation to the last minute, may now be further compromised by the sheer volume of work to be done. They may feel that they just can’t do it, and this may actually cause them to freeze such that they don’t do anything. I am reminded, however, of the question, ‘How to you eat an elephant?’ The answer of course is, ‘One mouthful at a time’.
The same approach, of actually doing some work, will help to overcome the ‘stuckness’ that they may feel. Positivity breeds positivity and so achieving any study will feel better than achieving no study. Starting small, but applying themselves consistently, may then help to build some momentum such that the volume of revision to be done will be reduced and so may start to feel more manageable.
A final group of students may be struggling with the weight of expectation. Over the years I have worked with many young people who baulk at the exams, as they fear the outcome and that the outcome will be judged negatively (either by themselves or their parents). Even the most neutral parent comments can often be interpreted as an expectation of some kind of success. Many parents complain, for example, that they say something like, “We don’t mind how you do as long as you do your best”, and this then gets interpreted as, “We expect you to do well.”
When the expectation of achievement is self-induced it can be even harder to counteract. Some students may compare themselves to peers or to siblings who have been successful in the past and may have internalised a belief that they have to match or exceed whatever standard has been set.
Again, a fear of judgement may lead to procrastination, with a possible unconscious element of ‘if I haven’t really studied, I can always blame my performance on that’. Students putting pressure on themselves, or feeling the pressure of parents, again need to focus on the process of preparing rather than the actual event of the exam. Parents need to reinforce their acceptance of the fact that if their son or daughter is making an effort it is all that you can ask of them.
Given that tensions and stresses may be high in many families right now, this is a good time for parents to reduce the pressure in other areas. Maybe let a few chores slide, maybe deliver a bit of extra TLC. Maybe be the encouragement to stop, take a break, get some fresh air or have a laugh. Life is short and exams are only a moment in time. That moment will pass and other opportunities will always arise. In the meantime, you have all my best wishes for the next few intense weeks.