Ex­ams and how to sur­vive them

Par­ents are just by­standers but that brings its own stress in the count­down to the State exam

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - Sheila Way­man sway­man@ir­ish­times.com

I’ve read about them, lis­tened to them, writ­ten about them and, to be hon­est, had the odd smirk about them. Now I am one – a Leav­ing Cert mum.

To be even think­ing like that is a sure sign of be­ing caught up in the hype. It’s the first time too, which makes it a big­ger deal. From giv­ing birth on­wards, you do learn that ev­ery par­ent­ing chal­lenge is usu­ally a lit­tle eas­ier on rep­e­ti­tion. No mat­ter how much you swore you would never be one of “those par­ents” who ra­di­ate so much ner­vous ten­sion you’d think they were go­ing into the exam hall them­selves, it’s hard not to let flut­ters of con­cern take flight.

We know we are mere by­standers as our off­spring pre­pare for this mon­u­men­tal test of in­for­ma­tion re­call and hand-writ­ing speed. It’s all about them, not us. But the pow­er­less­ness of be­ing on the side­lines can add to the stress – ask any football man­ager. Not that I would fancy get­ting my biro out to at­tempt English pa­per one at 9.30am on Wed­nes­day June 7th . . . How­ever, a mother’s guilt doesn’t stop when a child reaches 18. So it’s no sur­prise, as May hur­tles into June, we do some re­vi­sion of our own.

Here are seven things I’ve learned so far.

Emo­tions creep up on you

There’s no point in over-in­vest­ing at the time of the mocks, sure isn’t there months to go be­fore the real thing? Meet­ing the teach­ers af­ter that set of results is re­as­sur­ing, or not, de­pend­ing on the child, the sub­ject – and the teacher.

When the first hur­dle of orals and prac­ti­cals is crossed there’s still a whole sum­mer term to go. Ex­cept that sum­mer term is very, very short. And be­fore the Leav­ing Cert, there’s the other sig­nif­i­cant leav­ing – of school. By the time the school has sent out notes about ar­range­ments for the last day and farewell evening, the “last ev­ers” are be­ing chalked up –the last sports day, the last dou­ble pe­riod of Ir­ish on a Mon­day morn­ing, the last time a school shirt needs iron­ing. Then the clock is tick­ing as loudly in the par­ents’ as the stu­dents’ ears.

Sud­denly you’re back to that in­duc­tion evening be­fore the start of first year, when the “Class of 2017” was writ large on the screen and it seemed such a long time away. Worse, you’re trans­ported back to your own fi­nal school days, with no idea of what you wanted “to be” and try­ing to imag­ine life with­out class­rooms and timeta­bles, when it was all you had ever known.

I can re­call Paul Gil­li­gan, chief ex­ec­u­tive of St Pa­trick’s Men­tal Health Ser­vices in Dublin, ad­vis­ing last year that no mat­ter how good par­ents think they are at main­tain­ing bound­aries and keep­ing anx­i­ety in check, when they are caught up in the pre-exam chat­ter among peers and in the me­dia, it’s im­pos­si­ble to stay de­tached.

Not that you wouldn’t want to em­pathise, but it’s a balance be­tween not let­ting your own anx­i­ety ex­ac­er­bate theirs and ap­pear­ing non­cha­lant, which might be taken as you didn’t care enough.

Con­ver­sa­tions about “when I was do­ing the Leav­ing Cert . . .” are ir­rel­e­vant

Don’t even think about go­ing there – be­cause that re­ally is such a long time ago. How could you ex­pect any teenager to take an era be­fore mo­bile phones se­ri­ously?

The fu­til­ity of un­hinged “if onlys . . .”

There are lots of junc­tions in par­ent­ing where the old joke comes to mind about a Ker­ry­man be­ing asked for di­rec­tions and re­spond­ing with: “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here . . .” The more ad­vice you lis­ten to, the more it seems you are be­ing told that if you had done some­thing dif­fer­ent when they were younger an is­sue might have been avoided. By the time they reach 18, the “nur­ture” part of the “na­ture and nur­ture” co­nun­drum has al­most run its course. No point now in ru­mi­nat­ing at 3am about:

If only . . . I had per­se­vered with try­ing to per­suade him to de­velop a taste for fish, would his brain be reap­ing the ben­e­fits now?

If only . . . I had de­vised “rules of use” be­fore I handed over that first mo­bile phone, would one not be em­bed­ded in his palm now?

If only . . . I had been stricter about a study­ing rou­tine in fifth year, would it have helped? It’s too late to al­ter your par­ent­ing style Even if you could, it’s not ad­vis­able. Teenagers start get­ting re­ally wor­ried if par­ents start chang­ing habits of a life­time. But that doesn’t stop oc­ca­sional doubts about the wis­dom of favour­ing a pru­dently hands-off ap­proach, ap­peal­ing to their sense of rea­son rather than lay­ing down the law.

It’s not the time to de­nounce our ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem

Per­haps we should have em­i­grated to Fin­land when the chil­dren were born but, to use that phrase beloved of politi­cians, “we are where we are”.

There is no point in rail­ing against the exam game they are all be­ing forced to play, ex­cept to re­as­sure them that the re­sult will not de­fine them. And that there re­ally is myr­iad post-Leav­ing op­tions out there, un­like “in our day”.

Sport is a boost not a bind

When train­ing and matches seem to take up a lot of time and en­ergy dur­ing sixth year, it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber sci­en­tific re­search shows a pos­i­tive link be­tween sport par­tic­i­pa­tion and aca­demic achieve­ment.

Spe­cific to the mat­ter in hand, the results of a UCC study headed by John Bradley, of 402 boys grad­u­at­ing from sec­ondary school dur­ing 2008-2011, which was pub­lished in the US Jour­nal of School Health, re­ported that par­tic­i­pa­tion in sports dur­ing the last two years of school “con­ferred a 25.4-point ben­e­fit to the fi­nal Leav­ing Cer­tifi­cate score”. That’s the same as the bonus for do­ing hon­ours maths!

Grinds providers know how to play you

We were sucked into the world of group grinds for a cou­ple of sub­jects rel­a­tively late on. But once the or­gan­is­ers have your con­tact de­tails, be pre­pared for the con­stant push­ing of ex­tra re­vi­sion ses­sions, in­dis­pens­able study notes, stress-re­liev­ing sem­i­nars and last-minute crash cour­ses . . . An in­valu­able leg up for those who can find the money to pay or tak­ing ad­van­tage of ner­vous stu­dents and their fam­i­lies? Who can re­ally tell?

It’s a balance be­tween not let­ting your own anx­i­ety ex­ac­er­bate theirs and ap­pear­ing non­cha­lant, which might be taken as you didn’t care enough

There is no point in rail­ing against the exam game our chil­dren are all be­ing forced to play, ex­cept to re­as­sure them that the re­sult will not de­fine them.

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