It’s a lot of stress, but I will try to stay positive as Leaving Cert approaches

With two weeks to go to the State exams, Irene Halpin Long talks to one family in Farranree about the pressures of Leaving Cert 2017
It’s a lot of stress, but I will try to stay positive as Leaving Cert approaches
Leaving Cert student Kellie Thompson. Picture: Denis Minihane.

HAVING sat the Leaving Certificate in 1999, there are two things I recall from my experience. Sitting in the back row of a dusty exam hall, and panicking whilst I watched waves of bobbleheads bent over their exam scripts.

I also remember feeling insurmountable pressure in the lead up to exam season.

Whilst my 18-year-old self was somewhere between English paper one and my final state exam, Kellie Thompson was welcomed into the world. The now 17-year-old Leaving Certificate student from Farranree attends Gaelcholaiste Mhuire AG.

Intent on studying Occupational Therapy at University College Cork, Kellie is working hard in an attempt to gain the necessary entry points. Last year’s points for the course were 520.

Kellie’s older brother, Craig, has autism and severe learning difficulties. This is one of the reasons she wishes to pursue a career as an Occupational Therapist.

“I’d like to improve other people’s lives on a daily basis,” says Kellie. “I saw how hard it was for my brother growing up and how he didn’t have the things he needed and I’d like to provide that for other people.”

Kellie Thompson, Leaving Cert student. Picture: Denis Minihane.
Kellie Thompson, Leaving Cert student. Picture: Denis Minihane.

She is taking six higher level subjects for Leaving Certificate; English, Irish, Maths, Accounting, French and Biology.

“My favourite subject is Biology. I also love Irish because I have a passion for the language since I was young.

“I decided to go to an all Irish school because I liked Irish so much, even though I didn’t go to an all Irish primary school.

“I hate Maths. I just find it really difficult but I’m trying to stick with higher level Maths because you get an extra 25 points if you stay with higher level, as opposed to ordinary level.”

The Leaving Certificate exams start on Wednesday, June 7 — but the pressure has been on students since well before Christmas.

“I found there was a lot of pressure from the teachers after Christmas,” says Kellie. “Trying to fit everything in before the pre’s, I was under a lot of pressure but it’s easing off now a bit as it’s coming closer to the Leaving Cert.

“You realise that everything you have learned, you just need to revise it. Everything you need for the Leaving Cert, you now know. You just need to set it in stone in your mind.”

Kellie spends a substantial amount of time studying each evening.

“I come home from school and I do my homework. We don’t get much homework because they know that we need to study so I spend about an hour and a half, two hours doing my homework. Then I’ll take a break and I might study for about two or three hours.

“I try to study a different subject every night. I’ll study for about half an hour and then take a ten minute break, so with Biology, I take it chapter by chapter.

“I’ll read through my notes and I’ll make flash cards to help me remember buzz words. Then I’ll do exam questions on that topic.”

She does allow herself some down-time.

“I read a lot, I watch Netflix and I love going for walks. Before the pre’s, I worked for a while so that was a bit of time off but I gave that up to focus on the Leaving Cert.”

This year, the Minister for Education, Jan O’Sullivan, announced changes to Leaving Certificate grades and CAO points. In a bid to reduce pressure on students, the new grading system reduces the number of grades from 14 to eight, ranging from H1 to H8 at higher level and O1 to O8 at ordinary level.

Kellie Thompson, her brother Craig and mum Vicky. Picture: Denis Minihane.
Kellie Thompson, her brother Craig and mum Vicky. Picture: Denis Minihane.

“The points system this year has changed so we’re not sure if points are going to be reduced,” says Kellie. “In previous years, if, say, 100 people were going for occupational therapy and there were only 20 places, they would pick the top 20 points and then the cut off point is the person who got the lowest points. So that’s how it varies every year.

“It’s not a set amount of points every year. You have a goal in your mind and then it might go up or down and you mightn’t get your course because of that.

“Continuous assessment would be better instead of one big test at the end of every year. I think it’s so much pressure on people. I think it’s the points that scare people the most because you never know how it’s going to change from year to year”.

From speaking to Kellie, it was apparent that she is a hard-working, determined young woman. At 17 years old, how did she process the pressures attached to State exams, and how, in her opinion, is it affecting her peers?

“Personally, I try to keep a positive mindset. It’s not ‘the be all and end all’. There are different ways of getting into college so you must consider that as well. But I think other people might not be able to deal with the stress.

“I know, from experience, there have been people who have dropped out of school or don’t come to school any more and study at home because they prefer to be in an environment at home where they can study by themselves.”

Behind most young students stand parents or guardians, ready to support their young scholars through this pressurising spell. Kellie’s Mum, Vicky, voiced some of her concerns.

“The points for the course that Kellie wants to do are very high. I’m just worried about the pressure that she’s putting on herself to get the points. Kellie is a very high achiever and she is very hard on herself. She puts an awful lot of time into studying.

“If I’m honest, I think she puts too much time into studying. I’d like her to have a bit more down time. She is so focused on her studies.”

Vicky explained that Kellie has been having bad headaches in the run up to the exams.

“She’s been suffering with migraines and it’s all down to stress. I think the pressure of exams is too much. Continuous assessment is a great idea rather than having huge exams… break down the exams rather than having all the exams in one period.”

Vicky offered some words of advice to parents.

“Don’t put them under pressure to study. Give them time off. It’s so important to get time away from the books. Just close the book, get out for a walk, meet some friends. They need some time out.”

As for me, I didn’t get the points I needed for my first choice course. I was disappointed, but that disappointment faded away and my world did not disintregrate.

“I simply chose a different path and, give or take a few bumpy patches, everything is working out fine. Your self-worth is much more than a list of grades or a number of points.

Dr Gillian Moore Groarke, Consultant Psychologist.
Dr Gillian Moore Groarke, Consultant Psychologist.

Ahead of the State exams, Psychologist Dr Gillian Moore-Groarke gives some tips to parents and students.

AS a psychologist and parent, I am a regularly asked what advice I would give to students and parents.

The Leaving Cert is a very stressful time for families, and while many dismiss the Junior Cert as not important, it determines the classes, higher or lower, that you get into for the senior cycle.

The past few months have been a busy time for students, preparing for interviews for colleges abroad, CAO choices, and students studying for the HPAT.

In the last five years, I have seen a significant increase in students presenting with panic attacks and GAD (general anxiety disorder) at the time of the Leaving Cert. The reality is that after the summer, unless you choose to repeat, there is no more school to go back to.

With significant pressures on teachers and limited classes of career guidance, completing courses, attending grinds and revision seminars, all involved, including parents who provide the finance and taxi service to give their teenagers the best possible chance to succeed, become parts of what I refer to as the ‘hamster on the wheel’ syndrome.

The important points that students and parents need to consider to manage their stress are as follows:

Make out a plan and manage your time effectively taking regular breaks. Teachers, if asked, are very good about providing guidance for specific subject revision plans.

Stay healthy by eating well, exercising for at least 30 minutes a day, and make sure you get enough sleep.

Chill out and use relaxation techniques which are available on the internet. Personally, I feel mindfulness is great and if you research mindful body scans they are effective and quick and easy to use.

Visualise success. Rhonda Byrnes proposes this in his books The Secret and The Power and yes, this PMA (positive mental attitude) does work.

If you find yourself getting very stressed, ask your career guidance counsellor can you speak to him/her. They are trained in listening skills and if the problem is more serious, consider talking to a psychologist or counsellor.

Practice the papers over and over again, this is the best method for study after Easter. This applies especially in Maths and languages. You will see patterns emerging in the papers.

Do not rely solely on hints or becoming obsessed with boards, i.e. for predictions. Be well prepared by having some options depending on the kinds of questions that come up.

Use your downtime effectively to switch off by watching a film, or increasing your exercise routine. Avoid phones and computers all the time.

Useful Apps such as Headspace, Dayleo and Moodkit, all will help to keep your thought process positive.

Finally, remember, no matter how the exams go, you have options. The results of the leaving cert are never again referred to at third level so don’t define yourself as a person by the number of points you get. Best wishes to all students.

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