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How to Revise Without Stress
If there were a barometer for measuring national stress levels, it would probably be reading “stratospheric” right now, as more than a million young people immerse themselves in examinations. For students sitting university finals, A levels and GCSEs, the next month will be full of stress, anxiety and, for those who haven't started yet, last-minute cramming.
Even if students manage to stay relatively calm, their parents may well be stressing over whether their offspring are doing sufficient work. So how can families keep the emotional temperature at manageable levels during these fraught weeks?
“Be alert to whether your child seems more withdrawn or isolated than usual and to any significant changes in behaviour,” advises Lee Mitchell, the assistant director of services for ChildLine, now part of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). “Our most recent survey has shown that 42 per cent of children questioned would not talk to their parents about a big personal problem. They struggle to articulate what they are feeling, so it is important that parents develop open communication lines at this difficult time.”
Parents tread a fine line, wanting to show that they care while not appearing over-anxious. Nagging, fussing and close interrogation about revision progress are less helpful than practical support. “A lot of self-discipline is needed by young people at this time and parents can help them to impose that,” says Michael Duke, an educational psychologist. “They can help to structure a revision timetable and ensure that they have somewhere quiet to study. When kids take a break, parents can make sure this does not last too long. Young people need a good eight hours sleep. Parents have a role in seeing that they don't stay up too late and that they get up at a reasonable time in the morning.”
GCSE entrants taking their first public exams may need more guidance, structure and support than old hands doing A levels. Practical tips on how to tackle an exam paper can give a child confidence and defuse some of their anxiety, says Ruth Coppard, an NHS psychologist in South Yorkshire. On the other hand, a little bribery, say a few hundred pounds, may galvanise the work-shy. “Offering money as an incentive is fine as long as it is linked to effort. Make it clear that you expect your child to do their best and hand the money over before the results come out if you feel they have really tried hard. With the all the effort in the world, some children are not going to get top grades.”
Parents should help their offspring to find something constructive to do during the long summer between exams and results; a job, voluntary work or chores around the house. “It's not a good idea just to mooch,” says Coppard.
And come results day in August, parents may need to manage their own expectations - and disappointments. “Remember that exams are just a gateway to the next phase in academic life and doing badly is not the end of the world. Recriminations on disappointing results are pointless,” says Coppard. “University - and getting into debt - is not the only option. If your child does not get the results they hoped for, you need to focus on what they can do next. Even poor grades are not wasted; they are part of the learning experience.”
How to study Research suggests that study is best divided into chunks of 30 to 40 minutes with a 5 or 10- minute break in between. At the end of three or four sessions, students should have half an hour off, with a longer break for lunch and dinner.
Divide each day into three units - morning, afternoon and evening - 21 a week in total, advises Sophie Corlett, the policy director at Mind, the mental health charity. “Make a list of all the topics you need to cover and estimate how long you think it will take you to revise each one. Then add on plenty of extra. Divide the topics up between the units. Always leave yourself a minimum of six units of free time per week and include some exercise in the routine. Switching between different methods of revision helps to hold your interest and absorb information better. Mix dull subjects with more interesting ones. If it's hard to get started, begin with something easy,” Corlett says.
Managing exam stress With the first of three sets of SATs (standard assessment tests) coming at the end of Year 2, when children are just 7, today's pupils are likely either to be very calm or totally freaked out by the time they get to GCSEs. “It can work either way,” says Coppard. “Some children will become very laid-back and others will be traumatised. How parents deal with the early tests is very important.” If your child shows signs of stress, suggest that they try:
Exercise “Regular exercise is an excellent way of coping with stress,” says Corlett. “As little as 10 or 20 minutes a day spent walking, cycling, or at the gym can make a big difference.” Exercise is thought to raise the level of mood-enhancing neurotransmitters in the brain, reduce muscle tension, improve sleep and decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Relaxation therapies There is some scientific evidence to suggest that yoga, massage and meditation can help to relieve anxiety. Mind suggests the following relaxation routine. Close your eyes and breathe slowly and deeply. Locate any areas of tension and try to relax those muscles; imagine the tension disappearing. Relax each part of the body, from your feet to the top of your head. As you focus on each part of your body, think of warmth, heaviness and relaxation. After 20 minutes, take some deep breaths and stretch.
Getting a good night's sleep Students should allow time to unwind between work and bed, stopping academic work at least an hour before they turn in. Take a warm bath with a few drops of lavender oil in the water. Avoid sleeping aids - including herbs - the night before an exam unless you have tried them before, as they may leave you feeling groggy in the morning. Avoid caffeine after 6pm.
Feed your brain Although the brain represents only 2 per cent of body weight, it accounts for about 20 per cent of resting energy expenditure. Supplying it with healthy, regular meals and snacks can improve mental performance, according to Catherine Collins, the chief dietitian at St George's Hospital, in South London.
“A large meal can make you feel tired, so have your main course and then dessert a little later,” suggests Collins. “Eat something every two to three hours. In between meals, have a variety of snacks, such as fresh fruit, small packets of dried fruit, cereal bars, a scone, a KitKat or a packet of Quavers. We need to treat ourselves during periods of stress, but it is not a good idea to snack entirely on chocolate or biscuits as you are getting calories without many nutrients. A breakfast cereal with milk provides a good snack at any time of the day.”
A 2005 study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association says: “Evidence suggests that breakfast consumption may improve cognitive function related to memory, test grades, and school attendance.”
Drink plenty of fluids Being mildly dehydrated can reduce blood flow to the brain, cause headaches and affect concentration. Maximise students' nutrient intake by varying drinks to include water, tea, coffee, milk, smoothies and juices. Studies suggest that caffeine improves short-term memory and speeds up reaction times, but Collins advises against over-reliance on so-called “functional drinks”. For example, in the case of Red Bull, the ingredient taurine can increase blood pressure and slow heart-rate, an undesirable effect.”
Keep up iron levels Half of all girls aged 15 to 18 are deficient in iron and even a slight deficiency in this mineral can affect memory retention. Red meat, dark green leafy vegetables and breakfast cereals are good sources of iron. For maximum absorption, do not drink tea or coffee at the same time.
On the day In the exam room, students should make themselves comfortable and take a few deep breaths to reduce tension. Then they should turn over the exam paper and take five minutes to read all the questions twice and work out how long they are going to spend on each question or section. They should allow time to read over and check answers at the end. If they cannot decide which questions to tackle, they should go for those they can answer and return to the others later.
If they feel themselves panicking, they should put down the pen and relax, eyes closed and breathe slowly. “If it helps, put your head on the desk,” advises Sally Ingram of Dundee University's counselling service. “Shake your arms. Say something encouraging to yourself. Imagine yourself somewhere where you feel happy.”
Some find that sniffing an essential oil such as lavender or rosemary clears the head and helps concentration. Put a few drops on a tissue before you enter the exam room.
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