It is worth pointing out that stress is not a bad thing. In fact, stress can be good. Believe it or not, our desired outcome is not a stress-free year. Rather, it is a child who is able to recognise, control and manage their stress levels, harnessing that stress to assist them with working at their best, yet managing that stress in such a way that prevents it from boiling over.
Stress – why we need it
In our student seminars we talk about a ‘spectrum of stress’. At one end of the spectrum, the no stress end, you will find a student who struggles to do any work. After all, motivation is defined as a tension or stress that forces one to take action. At the other end of the spectrum is a student who is totally stressed, where the slightest hint of an unexpected hurdle sets off tears, emotional breakdowns and high levels of anxiety.
Thankfully, these extremities are somewhat uncommon. However, every student tends to find themselves somewhere on the spectrum and they will usually find that the position changes across the year.
Whilst it is usually the subject of self help books aimed at removing it, stress does help us to perform at our best. Without stress our concentration wanes, our focus and senses are muted and our motivation collapses. But with a little bit of stress, we find it easier to concentrate, our senses are heightened and, at our optimum point, we begin to produce adrenaline.
If students were able to keep their stress levels in this zone around exams and other assessments, things would be great. But for a lot of students, their stress levels get out of control. Classic signs of over-stress include (in ascending order of seriousness) butterflies, anxiety, shaking, nausea and panic attacks. Oh, and running out of the exam room screaming.
The key, therefore, is how to keep stress levels in check, and how you as a parent can assist your child to do this. The main cause of stress in students is a feeling of losing control. For your son or daughter, this will usually occur when they feel they are overwhelmed, unable to control the outcome of the year or when they are focusing on possible failure. These are the three main causes of stress in students, and each of these is both manageable and curable!
In some cases it involves active intervention by you as a parent, whilst in others it actually involves you stepping back! The common thread, though, is helping students to focus on the process, rather than the overall result.
Cause One: I’m out of control because I’m… overwhelmed by the workload
We all know that secondary school will end eventually. But for your son or daughter, the concept of finishing school is not easy to grasp. After all, there is so much that needs to be done before then.
One of the major causes of stress is when assessments pile up and the workload begins to spiral out of control. At this point, stress levels can often reach their highest point. This is often late Term 1, early Term 2 (when teachers begin to talk about mid-year exams) and late Term 3.
Students can lower stress levels in these times by re-establishing a sense of control. This is best done by creating lists of what needs to be done, how long it will take and when it needs to be done by. Our normal tendency when we are stressed is to blow things out of proportion. By breaking their workload down into small, manageable tasks, students will begin to feel like they have a bit of control.
Parents can help in this respect by being aware of times of significant stress. These will usually be around major assessments. Get hold of your child’s exam dates, and maybe the dates of important assessments across the term (these can usually be found in the school calendar, in your child’s diary or by speaking to their teacher). Put these in your own diary or onto the family calendar, so you’re aware of what is coming up.
By knowing when your child is heading into a peak stress period, you can help their sense of control by giving them space, backing off on obligations at home and by offering regular encouragement. Similarly, by adjusting how you relate to your child during these periods, you give them comfort, as they will feel you understand what they are going through.
Cause Two: I’m out of control because I… don’t have the skills to do well
The second significant cause of stress is a feeling of being unable to achieve what they have set out to do. For a lot of students, this manifests in frustration.
All students should have goals – specifically defined targets that they want to achieve across the year, as well as a path for exactly how they are going to achieve this.
Sometimes though, students will get marks back on assessment which make them think that they won’t be able to get the goal they’ve set themselves. “How am I ever going to get into that course when I’m averaging a C in Business Studies?” This is a classic sign that your child is focusing on the result of their work, rather than the process by which they will achieve the goal.
The reason your child is losing marks is because they are making mistakes. All they need to do is to figure out what they are doing wrong, how to fix it, and then not make that mistake again! They can do this by speaking to their teachers about the mistakes they are making. Often their teachers will also give students examples of precisely how other students are successfully using the skill in question.
You can help by getting your child to re-focus not on the overall goal, but rather on what they need to do in order to achieve it.
“Ok, so you want an A on the next test. What do you need to do in order to get an A?” The response might be “it’s an oral presentation, so I need to make eye contact, answer questions and get my timing right.” The focus then becomes “ok, how can you get the required marks for eye contact…” rather than “am I good enough to get an A for this?”
Again, by conceptualising success as a series of small steps, students can reassert control over their year and lower their sense of helplessness.
Cause Three: I’m out of control because I’m…going to fail, and if I do my life will be over!
Probably the most stressful time of the year is just before exams. One of the key causes for stress in these periods is that students’ fear of failure grows as they start to focus on everything that can go wrong. As students begin to focus on what they will lose rather than focusing on what they will win or gain, their stress levels increase.
Firstly, your child needs to do as many practice exams as possible. By doing lots of practice papers, not only will your child have seen most of the types of questions that they can be asked, but they will have a really good understanding of the content and how to express themselves in the exam room. Where your child has managed to work their way through a number of practice papers, turn their attention to the comfort or success with which they completed these papers and emphasise that it is time to trust in their preparation.
Another way you can help them is to remind them that they are competing against thousands of other people who will all be just as stressed, if not more stressed, than your child! Often as students we think that everyone else is 100% ready but we aren’t. In fact, every one of the tens of thousands of students they are competing against are in the same boat, so being stressed makes them normal!
But possibly the most important way of helping your son or daughter around exams is by putting their fears into perspective. The major cause of stress here is simply a fear of failure. The ancient Roman philosopher and writer Seneca highlighted the best solution to this problem: learn more about our fears. Seneca argued that our fears are based on a simple lack of knowledge, but the more we know about something the less we have to fear it. The main, overarching fear for students is that they will not get into their course of choice: “If I don’t get the score required for Business/Science/Law/Engineering I won’t ever be able to study the course.”
Fortunately, this fear is unfounded. If students don’t get into the course of their choice they have the following options:
Do the course at a different institution, which requires a lower mark;
Use the score to go into another course, and then work hard to get the required marks to transfer at the end of first year into their chosen course. This applies equally to students that don’t get into uni at all. Many private colleges provide the option to study diploma and advanced diploma courses, and some offer Bachelor degrees;
Study the course post-graduate;
Take a year out and then reapply;
Study internationally, where the marks required are different or lower.
By reminding them that the exams will be over soon, and that they have plenty of options regardless of how they do, we lessen the stress around exams to our optimum point. Enough to drive us to success, but not too much that it detracts from our performance.
Above all, help them to focus on the process, and not the overall result. If they get the process right, the result will take care of itself, and they don’t need to spend energy worrying about it!
Practical ways you can help your child with stress
Give them space around exams
Don’t book holidays or family events around important dates and before exams. Being away when the school is offering to run practise exams will stress your child.
Give them a lift to exams, as early as they want. If you offer to take them, don’t have them sitting in the car waiting for you. 60 minutes early for an exam is perfectly normal!
Be aware of their key assessment dates, so that you know when to give your child adequate space (but still remain close enough to offer support. Quite a balance we know!).
Speak to their year-coordinator if you’re concerned about their stress levels. They might say that “everyone is stressed, don’t worry” or discuss your concerns with you.
Help them to put the assessment/year into perspective. It seems bigger than it is!