Let’s face it; the HSC, assessment tasks, major works and tests are stressful for everyone concerned – students, siblings, parents, teachers etc.
What does the research say about the HSC and stress?
- Students feel academic pressure when the perceived level of expectation or consequence exceeds what they believe they can achieve. This can lead to stress and altered learning behaviours.
- 16% of students reported extremely severe levels of anxiety, while 37% registered above-average levels of stress.
- Stress, anxiety and pressure levels were highest amongst girls, and higher still in gifted girls. These findings were consistent across a range of cultural groups.
- 54% of students felt that too much was expected of them in Year 12. The main causes of pressure identified were workload (50%), expectations to perform (26%) and importance of exams (22%). Although average pressure levels between groups were similar, pressure was a stronger statistical predictor of stress and anxiety in gifted students.
- Students identified themselves as the greatest source of pressure (44%), with family (35%) and the school or teachers (21%) as the other main sources. More gifted students (47%) than their average-ability peers (24%) identified their own internal pressure as the strongest source of pressure.
- When pressure was high, 41% of students attempted more hours of study and 35% reported working harder. Not all students coped well – 32% reported an increase in procrastination and 14% became more competitive with their friends, with higher levels of both for gifted students.
For the student
You have a choice – be a victim of the HSC stress syndrome or accept that you need to take control of your attitude and actions. Accept that you are going to be under stress and determine you will strategically manage it. Here are some proven strategies:
- Set yourself a daily schedule. In the gap between when formal schooling finishes and the exams begin, your life is much less structured than it has been. Set yourself a study schedule. Be prepared. You can use the timetable you were on at school as a basis. Don’t massively change your sleeping patterns or you’ll risk feeling exhausted.
- Spend time on all your subjects. It may make sense to devote more time to subjects where you’re feeling less well-versed, but every subject counts towards your scores, so pay attention to them all.
- Stress: It’s when the stress is greater than the ability to cope that it can become a problem. You actually need a certain amount of stress to help keep you motivated but when it gets overwhelming it starts to affect your capacity to study and to get good marks. It’s important that you manage your stress or anxiety levels so that you stay in that zone of peak performance. Too often we picture the worst-case scenario or we hear a voice saying we can’t do it or we feel that we’re going to fail. Then we start feeling stressed or anxious. As soon as you notice yourself doing that, STOP and start focusing on the best-case scenario. Picture yourself getting the marks you want, hear other people congratulating you, get in touch with that feeling of achievement. If you do this regularly, you’ll notice that your feeling of confidence in yourself grows. And as you feel more confident, the feeling of stress lessens.
- Sleep: Getting an adequate amount of sleep is vital. While you may be tempted to stay up late to study, this isn’t always productive as you still need at least nine hours sleep a night.
- Exercise helps the flow of blood to your brain. You’ll find that if you do some exercise daily, you’ll be able to concentrate more and get more studying done! Aerobic exercise is very effective at relieving stress and depression. Even a short burst of exercise will have some beneficial effect. Stretching exercises are also good for relieving stress as they stimulate receptors in the nervous system that decrease the production of stress hormones. Stretching also relaxes tight, tense muscles and increases the blood supply to the muscles.
- Have regular breaks – put down your books or get up from the computer for ten minutes every hour. Moving around gets the blood flowing and eases tired, cramped muscles. Your mind will be clearer and you’ll study more effectively afterwards. Exposure to daylight also has positive effects on mood.
- Avoid caffeine – Drinks like coffee and coke give you a quick hit of blood sugar but then your blood sugar levels actually drop further than they were before you had the drink! So caffeine really prevents you from studying better. If you are feeling tired, have a break and do some exercise!
- Remember: It’s not the end of the world if you don’t get the marks you want. Investigate other ways of getting into the course you want to do so that you know you have other options.
For the parents
There are no study guides to prepare you and no websites to help you understand your child’s emotions as they get ready for the most stressful thing they have done in their short lives. If you have been through this before, well done! If this is a new experience or you need a refresher course, here are some tips that might help you all survive.
- Be realistic: There is always that natural parental tendency to think our children couldn’t be working hard enough, as if the only sure-fire route to a band six is via 22 hours a day of study. Their final marks do not define them.
- Encourage routines: It is helpful to have routines that support good health and wellbeing during the exam period. This can include having regular mealtimes, healthy snacks and meals, and encouraging times for physical activity and exercise to help ‘burn off’ the stress hormone cortisol.
- Remain calm: Being calm is one of the best things parents can do to help their kids aim high without succumbing to pressure. If you are measured and relaxed in your reaction to minor inconveniences and setbacks, you child will see that and incorporate it into their own stress-management repertoire. Remaining understanding and patient, particularly around assessment and exam times, is key. Tempers may fray easily, for both teens and parents, so keep in mind that it’s the “anxiety talking” rather than any other reasons.
- Talk to your child about things other than school! Human beings are multifaceted creatures, and if a student is only being asked about one aspect of their life, it is natural that they will start to view it as more important than other areas.