Exam season advice for parents: 'Their mental health is far more important than chasing points'
Don't want your children to buckle under the pressure? Then it's time to learn some studying techniques yourself, advises Celine Naughton
As the exam season looms, revisions are in full swing, tensions are running high and the heat is on for the estimated 120,000 students preparing to sit this year's Junior and Leaving Cert from June 6.
For parents it can be an equally anxious time, set to be even more challenging this year as stress levels ramp up further thanks to Easter falling early, which had the unwelcome effect of delaying the Leaving Cert oral exams until after the Easter holiday.
"Normally, the orals are finished before the Easter break, which allows students a little time to relax before turning their attention to the written exams," says Beatrice Dooley, President of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors. "This year, they haven't had that breather, and some are feeling a little more tired than usual."
Having been through the practice run of the recent mocks, parents of teens sitting State exams for the first time now have an idea of the stress they face in the weeks ahead. With orals and practicals out of the way, students are now revising for the main event, the written exams. For some, the challenge of committing heaps of information to memory, trying to anticipate what questions will come up, panicking over what they haven't covered and worrying about points can send their stress levels into overdrive.
For parents it's not only painful to watch their children buckle under the pressure, they can feel tested too. It's common for students to become irritable, especially if they're not getting enough sleep.
"It's like walking on eggshells," says one mum of a Leaving Cert student. "She's up to high doh and everything I say is wrong."
In a way, she can take it as a compliment.
"It may feel like a pressure cooker at home - as their parent, you're the only person with whom they can let off steam," says guidance counsellor Dooley. "Give them a little latitude for the duration of the exams. Be upbeat and positive. Reassure your child that you love him or her, and that everything will be okay. The most important thing is to maintain a calm, relaxed, caring environment.
"Try to give them a sense of perspective. It's not the end of the world if the exams don't go as planned. There are many options now offering different routes to a chosen career. If you don't get the points for nursing, you can do a post-Leaving Cert course and pursue nursing through this route. Or if you don't get enough for medicine, you can do a science degree first and then progress on to a graduate programme in medicine. There are loads of back ways into most careers, so assure your child they will end up where they wish one way or the other."
When it comes to homework and study, parents should provide a quiet, calm environment for teens, but watch that they don't overdo it.
"Putting in five or six hours' study a night is excessive and if a student has to go to such lengths to get a place on a particular course, it's likely they'll have to work just as hard for the duration of the course," says Dooley. "They need to ask themselves, can they maintain that pace of work over a three or four-year degree course? It's not healthy. Students need a work-life balance and in the run-up to exams, their mental health and well-being are far more important than chasing points."
As a secondary school teacher whose son Jake did the Junior Cert last year, Catherine Flanagan has first-hand experience of State exams from both sides of the school gates.
"Part of me thought the Junior Cert wouldn't be a big deal, but last year I found myself caught up in the madness," she says. "When Jake's friends' parents and I got together, it was the main topic of conversation. We'd swap notes and ideas, and when we heard about a college offering free grinds for Junior Cert students, it was hard to turn down.
"Before long, preparing for State exams starts to feel like a race, and you want to do whatever it takes to get your child to the finish line.
"The mocks became an all-consuming dry run both at school and at home. As well as doing grinds, Jake's social life was minimised in order to maximise study time. It was more than a dry run - it was a mini Junior Cert. When the results of the mocks came out, that became another source of stress. We tried to strategise for the last few months before the Junior Cert proper began. It was exhausting."
She adds: "It was only when we got to the other side I thought: 'Hang on, what was that all about?' In hindsight I realised that at least 90pc of the work had been done in school, and filling every holiday or weekend with planned study was a waste of energy. I should have been a lot more relaxed about it.
"I'm very concerned that we're sending mixed messages to our children. On the one hand, we say: 'Don't worry, just do your best and everything will be okay.' And at the same time, we're sending them off for grinds.
"I recently heard a parent enthuse about a school offering free after-school study for Transition Year students. I don't understand. We acknowledge there's a crisis in mental health among young people, yet we expect them to sacrifice friends, social life and extra-curricular activities to spend more time studying. That's what they have to do if they want to get 450 points in the Leaving, which is what a lot of courses require.
"It demands serious dedication and effort, at the expense of a healthy, balanced life. How have we, as a society, allowed ourselves to buy into this system?
"There is no easy solution, but the CAO and colleges have a lot to answer for as they are guardians of the points system. We need to recognise that there are other things going on in students' lives. The new Junior Cycle is a start, as it involves more course work, yet there's a lot of resistance to it. Some say it's a dumbing-down exercise, and not a good prep for the Leaving Cert. I think more emphasis should be put on continuous assessment, with the end goal to be minimising exams."