- About 40 per cent of year 12 students report symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress ahead of exams.
- Different support methods work better for different ways of dealing with anxiety
- Today’s student can expect to have about 5 career change in their work lifetime
As 17 and 18-year-olds around the country gear-up for a "blood sport" that may determine their career trajectory for years to come, the pressure of the HSC and VCE exams can feel so great they haunt some students decades later.
With the HSC exams kicking-off on October 18 and the VCE on November 1, students are likely to be feeling some anxiety ahead of their final secondary school assessments.
Exams are an overwhelming time for many students.
"High school exams are among the most stressful and anxiety-provoking experiences that young people report," says Dr Aliza Werner-Seidler, a clinical psychologist and senior research fellow at the Black Dog Institute. "About 40 per cent of year 12 students report symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress that all fall outside the normal ranges."
In extreme circumstances, the stress can be debilitating and lead to destructive behaviours.
"For most people luckily it is limited to exam periods. But it is a huge issue," Werner-Seidler says.
A huge issue that parents can help their children with.
Werner-Seidler impresses that not all students are alike and supporting the student who is a highly-driven perfectionist may be different to how parents might support the student who has their head stuck in the sand for fear of failure.
"For some students who are highly anxious, perfectionists and experience that really intense stress around exam periods, it's helpful for them to know that your exam marks aren't the be-all and end-all," Werner-Seidler says. "There are alternative paths to get to where you want to go."
Those of us who barely remember doing the HSC, it was so long ago, know that there is life after the exams that once seemed the pinnacle of importance and that our career trajectory is rarely linear.
Most people will have multiple career changes so it’s important not to place too much emphasis on tertiary admissions scores.Credit:Stocksy
Two decades after John Butts received a perfect TER score he recalled to Fairfax: "It's amazing how little your exam results matter in the long run … Other than getting you into a degree, but that degree might not be what suits you in the long run."
In fact, today's school leavers can expect to have, on average, five separate careers and 17 different employers if they work from the age of 18 till they turn 75.
"Some parents can be really focused on exam outcomes and it's really unhelpful for that group," Werner-Seidler says.
Instead parents can help make sure their children have regular breaks and keep up their sporting activities and social arrangements.
"There is more to life both after but also during exams," she says. "And we know that taking regular breaks and also exercising have the consequence of reducing stress.
"So when young people become so overwhelmed and focused on their exams it can actually be unhelpful and impair their performance."
She explains that a little of anxiety propels people to study and can improve performance.
"It's similar to when you are doing a job interview, it can help you perform better, but if you go over that threshold and you become so consumed with what will happen if you don't perform well, it affects your eating and sleep and don't participate in the things you usually do, then that's when it can become debilitating and really unhelpful for your outcomes."
Werner-Seidler suggests students take a study break at least every hour as "it's really difficult to maintain concentration for longer than about 45 minutes". Exercise guidelines for those aged 13 to 17 at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity every day.
We tend to hear less about this group, but Werner-Seidler sees them in clinic "all the time".
"They're the avoidant, more procrastinating type and often underlying that is a fear of failure, so if you don't try hard you can't fail because you didn't try hard," she says.
"For those students I think it is quite helpful to encourage them to study and to make sure they understand the exams aren't the be-all and end-all but it is a worthwhile thing to invest some time and energy in doing."
With a week to go for some, the procrastinator is either madly cramming or feeling frozen with overwhelm.
"They don't know where to start, so if they haven't been taking notes for a particular subject and they have to read the text book, there's so much work that needs to be done," Werner-Seidler says.
Being careful to avoid nagging or whinging, parents can sit down with their children and help them break down their work load into "small, manageable steps".
"Put it into an hour here, focus on chapters 1 to three, or whatever it is and just make a plan with an impending exam date and work backwards, looking at what's achievable in the time available," she suggests. "You probably won't summarise a text book but that's OK."
She adds that she finds an 80/20 rule helpful here. "With 20 per cent of the time you can get 80 per cent of the material covered," Werner-Seidler explains. "That extra 20 per cent [of material] takes 80 per cent of the time. For some people just covering that 80 per cent is so much better than the position that they're in.
"You may not know all of the syllabus and that's OK, if you know most of it you're in a far better position than if you avoid learning any of it."
Supporting all students
"There are certainly things parents can do to support both kinds of students," Werner-Seidler adds:
- Make sure there's a supportive environment at home and show empathy for the pressure they're under
- Make sure there's a quiet space for the young person to study
- Ensure they have access to nutritious food
- Simply making your child a cup of tea while they're studying can communicate to them that they're being supported, Werner-Seidler says.
- Making sure young people get enough sleep is important, so create boundaries around time on their phones or in front of the TV. The recommended sleep range for 14 to 17-year-olds is between 8 and 10 hours which is more than what young people report getting.
- Parents can speak to their child about relaxation strategies and mindfulness – there are a range of resources and apps available
- If your child is struggling, there is extra support available. Cognitive behavioural therapy essentially helps young people learn how to manage their emotions and negative thoughts and behaviours, Werner-Seidler says. Your GP or Headspace can help.
- Remember: "too much focus on academic outcomes is not the most helpful way to support young people become engaged contributors to society after school" Werner-Seidler says. "When [there] is only focus on academic outcomes, it really misses a whole lot of things young people can get from the school environment."
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