Its hard to describe the amount of emotional physical and mental stress the Leaving Cert can place on students. It seems ridiculous to think that students could be so affected by a series of examinations, but they are. There are different pressure points throughout the final year at school usually starting during Christmas Exams if the school offers that. Students will spend time at home revising for these and nights become long and mental burn out is easy with the intensity of study that is required . Some schools do these exams before Christmas and some do them after Christmas. If you are unlucky enough to do them after Christmas then you ‘ll lose out on the relaxation that is normally associated with Christmas, and even if you do them before Christmas you are SUPPOSED to be spending your Christmas revising anyway!
Then there are the trial examinations (mocks). In some schools these come before the mid term break and in other schools after the mid term break. In our case it was after the mid term break so that entire break is spent revising too. Roll on the oral exams and the performance exams and any third level interviews you might have.
Then Easter arrives. The heat is really on now. The entire break is devoted to revision and study. This year the calendar did not help as Easter cam very very late, so the final term which is supposed to provide some buffer between the Easter break and the start of the exams was only five weeks long. In my son;s case his Higher Maths course was actually incomplete by the time term ended and he had to go into school with the rest of his class in the two weeks before the Leaving Cert started to get the final lessons to complete it.
So basically there is no real rest period. The last rest is the October mid term. In my sons case he was hospitalised with a life threatening condition called quinsy during that break, so he had to balance resting for six weeks afterwards with the stress of exam performance. Some kids are as healthy as trouts and impervious to any such mental physical and emotional stress. Stress busting activities such as sport and music can be very helpful in this regard.
As a parent you have to do your best to keep your student healthy in the six months running up to the Leaving Cert and during the Leaving Cert . The leaving Cert is ruthless, it makes no exceptions during the exam period for sickness, and limited provision doing Oral Examinations and Performance Examinations.
What can you do as a parent?
1. Ensuring a healthy diet
Try to ensure that your student starts to eat well in the year running up to the Leaving Cert.This means introducing food that are high in antioxidants and also vitamin and mineral rich. Fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, limited fast food and caffeinated drinks, limited amounts of sugar and processed foods will go a long way to ensure a healthy diet. Also trying to ensure that foods are as close to their natural state as possible can help. Organic food is always better than inorganic food, but not everyone can afford or acces organic food all the time. If your student eats fish then fatty fish such as salmon or mackerel are good options as they are high in essential omegas and fats good for concentration and brain support! Again not every student likes fish so essential omegas can be supplemented.
Obviously, many students turn 18 during their Leaving Cert Year and so they become adult and responsible for their own food and beverage choices. This includes alcohol. Ideally, you have given them good support and they will realise that binge drinking with their mates is not a good idea during this time.
2. Preventative Care including good sleep patterns
Well preventative care only goes as far as your student being willing to comply with it! Many students are at an age where they know it all at this stage! None the less good sleep patterns are essential. That means trying to get to bed not too late and waking up early not at the last minute can help. Also useful is trying to ensure consistency. That is to say not staying up until 2am on the weekend and then trying to get to sleep at 10pm the next day. Its also worth remembering that when your student is sleeping during the Leaving Cert, even though the weather may not be great (as this year) the daylight will persist well past 1030pm; and it will look and feel like 5pm. It may be no harm to invest in full blackout blinds if your student is bothered by the light.
It may be a good idea to supplement diet with appropriate vitamins, minerals and other supplements. There are a large variety of them out there and any discussion with your local Health Food Store will suggest which ones might be best for your student. Digestive Enzymes and probiotics. can also be helpful and we certainly used those after my son’s hospitalisation.
3. Ensuring Good Mental Health
Of paramount importance is ensuring good mental health. Feeling balanced and emotionally well is a challenge that we all face all the time in our lives, knowing how to deal with stress is not something that can be learnt instantly, so putting measures in place that can help is important. For example getting good communication in place with your student is helpful. Organising low key times when they can chat to you eg whilst watching a football match or a televised sport, or watching a film together or maybe during car journeys (especially useful if you have a non talker!). For some children it may be no harm to organising a formal or informal mentor or counselor. Some kids will see the benefit in that and enjoy their sessions, but others may not want to take that on board and obviously the choice must be theirs. A good resource if you feel your child is having real difficulty is Jigsaw; a charity specialising in supporting young people in their mental health and well being. Sometimes a mentor might not be an obvious mentor, it might be the physiotherapist, the tennis coach, the osteopath, or the career guidance officer in school. Do pay attention to how your child is coping mentally and emotionally throughout the six months running up the the leaving cert, and if you are genuinely worried then intervene. Your GP is the first port of call if you are worried about your child’s mental health.
Mental health can be boosted by continuing outside interests such as sport, drama and music, but even these tend to fall by the wayside in the last month. Some lads are keen to go to a gym, even if they are not playing sport because the season is over. Some small gyms have a come as you want pass that might be affordable and also there might be a swimming pool nearby that your student might enjoy if they like swimming. Peer support is also important. Its good to know that there are others feeling the same as you and that you are not the only one going through this. Peer support can also be counterproductive. Too much social media contact, bullying, unhealthy social dynamics can be unhelpful.
4. Dealing with Mobile Phones
This brings us onto THE PHONE. For most of us as parents, the concept of THE PHONE as a permanent fixture in a teenager’s life is troubling to some degree. At 18, you cant demand your child’s phone, or confiscate it. Well you could, but it would be a desperate act and wouldn’t bode well for open communication between you and your child. Also you have to remember that for teenagers the phone is the way that many of them revise and also their main point of contact with their peers and the outside world. By 18 your child should be self limiting with the phone and if not, it may be possible to observe some simple family ground rules about phone use during the leaving cert. I personally found that my son used his phone as an alarm and a revision tool so I just had to surrender to his own inner judgement and wisdom as to its use in the bedroom.
5. Encouraging exercise, sports walking swimming and music
Everything you read everywhere discusses the importance of exercise during the Leaving Cert. With a super packed timetable though it can be really hard to get out and exercise unless you have a well established exercise program, but going for a walk or a run can easily be done, and I d encourage you to encourage your student to do this if at all possible. A change of scene for a short while can completely clear the head and make you feel invigorated and better able for the next stage. Some students find that walking to school on the day of the exam can help clear their heads, but others want to be driven in and collected straight away afterwards. See what best suits your student. My boy wanted the full chauffeur service!
6. Remedies teas and scents that help with stress
Stress busters can also include RESCUE REMEDY (available in any chemist or health food store), and also some homeopathic remedies such as Aconite, Arg Nit and Lycopodium can also help with stress. Herbal teas such as chamomile and lemon balm or fennel also have a soothing effect. Some smells also help ease stress so popping a bit of lavender essential oil, frankincense essential oil or mandarin essential oil in an oil burner or diffuser can also help some students. We are big fans of rescue remedy and indigo essences here (eg the one that says NO FEAR and CONFIDENCE) and also we have found aconite the homeopathic remedy very helpful to steady the nerves.
7. Healthy easy to eat snacks between exams
Some exams are double headers. so having something healthy and wholesome to eat in between the exams can be important to keep up the energy levels. Often appetite also gets suppressed when stress levels are high so your student may not be in a humour to eat much before they leave in the morning. Good easy to eat energy boosters are strawberries, blueberries, mandarins, raspberries, nuts (but not in a nut free school), carrot sticks, mini pitta breads with favourite fillings, cheese and crackers, humus and vegetable dips, grapes, fresh smoothies.
8. Staying hydrated
Hydration is also important Make sure they drink well and take a bottle of water (label taken off) in with them. In spite of all the advertising try to limit caffeinated drinks and super sugared isotonic drinks. You can make your own isotonic drink with coconut water fresh fruit juice and a touch of salt and lemon juice if you want! Ideally limit tea and coffee consumption too, but sometimes a cup of Joe is just what you need to get yourself going!
9. Light at the end of the tunnel
Having something to look forward to is helpful for young adults, whatever that may be. Maybe its a holiday with their friends or a camping trip or a family trip or maybe its something they want to buy or a concert they want to go to. Mindfulness and being in the moment are important but teenagers need to realise that this stress ball of the Leaving Cert wont last forever!
10. Treat any symptoms of illness immediately
Finally, if they get unwell jump on it like a hawk. As I said earlier, my son was hospitalised in November with quinsy. Its precursor is often acute tonsillitis or strep throat. So he is quite susceptible to any viral or bacterial infections that involve the throat or tonsils. So last weekend when he said to me that he could feel himself getting a “throat thing” I went into overdrive. I dosed him with a rake of homeopathic and herbal remedies and got him colloidal silver from the Health Food Store as well as super strength vitamin C and Echinacea drops, and lozenges from the chemist with a mild antibiotic action I also bought soluble aspirin for him to gargle with, although he actually didn’t need that in the end as the combination of the other things worked.
One Leaving Cert Student’s story
I am gong to end this blog with a story I heard on the radio the other day. A girl doing her leaving cert self diagnosed herself with appendicitis about ten days before the Leaving Cert started. Her doctor said no she didn’t have that and treated her for gastric upset. Her symptoms developed and the day before the Leaving Cert she was admitted to Wexford General with (yes you guessed it) acute appendicitis. Her surgery was planned for the morning of the first Leaving Cert, English Paper 1. Her parents phoned the Exams Commission and was informed that if she missed that exam no further provision would be made for her to sit it. Her parents asked whether she could resit it in July along with other students who would be allowed site their papers on a different date on account of bereavement. They were told no. Her choices were, do the Leaving Cert next year or do the Leaving Cert without English, meaning that she would not be able to gain university entry due to not enough subjects, not enough points and not holding English Language at Leaving Cert.
So this girl underwent what turned out to be life saving surgery at 4am in the morning of the first day of the Leaving Cert and CTMA sat her Leaving Cert English paper five hours post surgery for a burst appendix. She had three drips going into her and was on several pain killing meds. She wrote the paper on the trolley by your bed normally reserved for eating your breakfast. Her attending doctor was very unhappy with this situation because he thought she was endangering her health and her parents also. As she was 18 she was able to sign her own Contrary To Medical Advice form. What kind of society are we living in that young people feel they have to put this exam before their own health because there is no leeway and because there are no resits? Obviously acute appendicitis could not have been prevented, but whatever you can prevent do, because if not this is the end game.
Number of Exams sat: 9 Exams left to sit: 2
Subjects Sat: 6. Subjects left to sit: 2
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