Sunday 18 August 2019

Dr Ciara Kelly: If you could give your kids one gift, it would be resilience

Dr Ciara Kelly. Photo: David Conachy
Dr Ciara Kelly. Photo: David Conachy
Exam stress helps build resilience

Ciara Kelly

And so new research reveals that three-quarters of secondary school students are suffering from exam stress. Many of them feel the current systems of exams leading up to the Leaving Cert is putting them under real mental strain, and when asked what could be done, various ideas were put forward by the students that weren't unreasonable - like time out for mindfulness during the day and some kind of increased continuous assessment or indeed broader parameters for assessment. So their school careers aren't solely judged on how they perform in an exam hall, for two weeks in early June, after six years of full-time study.

So far so good I hear you say - anything that makes things a little easier on them must be a good thing. But part of me wonders is stress really something we should be trying to protect them from? The Leaving Cert today isn't hugely different from when I did it nearly 30 years ago. (Apart from grade inflation making it slightly easier to get higher marks now). Back then it was still the hardest exam you would ever sit - evidenced by how many of us still experience 'that dream' to this day. The one where you're sitting your Leaving but you haven't a clue what's coming up on the exam and you may or may not be naked.

It still decided whether or not you would get into college or university post-school - although there were fewer places then and your parents had to pay eye-watering fees and were mostly totally broke because of crippling mortgage and tax rates so they were fairly unconcerned about exam stress and just expected you to get on with it.

And the only other difference as I see it, was in the era of benign neglect parenting, when responsibility around results was put far more on the kids themselves with scant offers of grinds or extra tuition or even parent-teacher involvement.

You're probably wondering if some Monty Pythonesque-trip down misery lane - albeit enjoyable - is not what I'm getting at! My concern is this - stress in many ways is in the eye of the beholder. So what one person can easily cope with, can overwhelm someone else. But I think the simplest definition of stress is that it's the shortfall between what you think you're expected to do - and what you feel able to do.

With something like the Leaving Cert what you're expected to do hasn't really changed. What I believe is changing - and this is key in all of this - is what our kids feel able to do. And some of that is down to how we parent them. I don't think we're bringing our kids up to feel capable. Quite the opposite in fact.

In our attempts to mostly just love and protect them, I think we're sending them the message that they aren't able for lots of stuff. So we now have kids who at age nine-12 aren't allowed to walk any distance on their own because of irrational fears about personal safety. At six-eight they aren't able to prepare simple food in the kitchen in case they hurt themselves in some possible way. And at all ages two-thirds of them never do any chores whatsoever around the house. Even though in so many houses both parents work so a spare pair of hands would be great. Plus we know that kids who have the responsibility of home chores are more successful in later life.

The point I'm making is trying to protect our kids from the stresses and strains of life simply isn't realistic. Instead, we should be trying to teach them to cope with them instead. I know as an adult one of the coping tools I've used at times of severe stress was drawing on the knowledge that I've been stressed before and I survived - so I'd survive this too. Time marches on, bad times and stressful situations pass. Believing that you can cope and are able for something is half the battle in getting past it. So experiencing age-appropriate levels of stress as you go through life will make difficult times easier to deal with when you're an adult.

If you could give your kids one gift, it wouldn't be a life free from stress. It would be resilience. Trying to remove stress from our kids isn't the answer - we should be teaching them they're well able for it instead.


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