Sunday 18 August 2019

Marie Murray: 'Exam results are a lesson in themselves - how you cope will guide you more than any grade'

We did it: Rachel Ballantine (left) and Emma Duffy picking up their Leaving Certificate results at Coláiste Rís in Dundalk, Co Louth. Photo: PA
We did it: Rachel Ballantine (left) and Emma Duffy picking up their Leaving Certificate results at Coláiste Rís in Dundalk, Co Louth. Photo: PA

Marie Murray

What a day today is! Jammed between the Leaving Cert results yesterday and the CAO offers tomorrow, emotions are high in the households of the 59,000 or so students and their parents coping with it all. It is an emotionally condensed time when the entire future seems to hang on these two days; the Leaving Cert results and the CAO offers.

Of course, a happy and successful future is not dependent on a CAO place but families worrying about the translation of yesterday's points into tomorrow's CAO offers cannot think that. While we know from the work of American cognitive psychologist Howard Gardiner that academic achievement is just one (often overvalued) form of intelligence amongst the multiple intelligences people have, all of which have career potential, today is about absorbing yesterday's Leaving Cert results and anticipating tomorrow's offers.

It is hard to see beyond that because we have made these results out to be the pinnacle of secondary school accomplishment, the markers of achievement, the gateways to success and the currency of future wealth, happiness, status and power.

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Given media saturation around the Leaving Certificate and CAO offers, the exceptional students achieving 8H1s and analysis of subject trends, it is hard for those who know they may not get their college choice tomorrow. At heart, most Leaving Cert students want to make their parents proud. But if ever there was an exam that can affect students' happiness and self-esteem it has to be the Leaving Cert with its consequent CAO and course offers and the personal, parental and extended family expectations and inevitable, if hidden, comparisons.

Communication platforms don't give anyone a chance to come to terms privately with their results before everyone else knows. The visibility of everything is hard for those who do not succeed as they would wish.

Although it is wonderful now that only two days separate Leaving Cert results and CAO, that students can review their scripts, that appeals can be made online and responded to so quickly, the sheer intensity of this efficiency leaves little time for personal psychological processing, especially for students who have not achieved what they need and who are not offered the places they hope to get.

It can feel like catastrophic failure rather than another step along the educational journey of life.

So how can students cope? How do they pick themselves up? What helps them to be resilient in the face of disappointment? Well, once the immediate practical tasks are done, such as correct calculation of the options that are available to them, seeking the advice of their career guidance teachers and support from national information helplines if needed, there is a psychological journey to undertake.

Firstly it is important for students who have passed the Leaving Cert to celebrate that they have already achieved an important academic qualification. This can get lost in the hype about the next step.

It is good to note that a setback is not failure, it is simply a setback, to appreciate the subjects they did well in instead of thinking of the aggregate, to be assured and that they will find ways of achieving their goals no matter what. Never were there more 'further ed' opportunities, alternative routes, amazing PLCs, wonderful apprenticeships and other options to do whatever inspires a student to become whatever they wish to be.

The discourses about 'results' can overlook the talents, creativity, imagination and the sheer possibilities of the young brain and the inspired determined person.

Coping is knowing that the most important lessons are often learnt by how we respond to obstacles. With one in six students reportedly dropping out of college there may be advantages in preliminary, part-time, pre-college alternative or transitional courses instead of rushing headlong and exhausted into the next academic challenge.

Of course, being upset is normal for students who don't achieve what they hoped. These feelings need to be recognised, permitted, admitted and named rather than being pushed away, displaced or denied. The students who cope best are those whose parents tell them that they support them and why they value them independent of exam results. Students who cope well eat well, get enough sleep, and do not use alcohol or substances to deal with upset. They talk to their friends. They support each other. They do not ruminate on the past but plan for the future. They ask what options are available. What realistically do they want to do? What are the other routes to where they want to get? What are their personal talents, strengths and challenges? They know there is life after disappointment.

Exam results do not define us, our behaviour does that. No academic results can ever be as valuable as learning how to cope with disappointment and distress. Few skills are more important than being able to look ahead and know that things get better when they are at their worst.

How celebration or set-back is managed by families will be remembered long after Leaving Cert and CAO results are but a dim memory. It is worth remembering that today.

Dr Marie Murray, clinical psychologist and systemic psychotherapist

Irish Independent

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