Managing our mental well-being during times of stress


Alan White

Returning to school after the Easter break is always a stressful time in the lives of students. It is the last break before the leaving and junior cert, or “terminal” exams. Every year I see students struggling to cope with the demands put on them at this difficult time. We as teachers often add to this stress by demanding more and more from students, often in response to a perceived lack of effort on the part of the student.

But does this approach work? For some arguably yes it does. The high flyers, who are aiming to get top marks in their exams and have shown this ability repeatedly, will survive and even thrive in this high Pressure environment. Students who experience difficulties in school, will often get extra help and specialist support throughout their school lives, which will help them through, not saying it’s still not stressful.

However what about the average student? Which let’s face it the vast majority of us were. The students who do their best every day, do most of what is asked of them and will inevitably get decent results in exams. I have seen the stress that parents and teachers put on these students affect them to the point where they can no longer function in school. I have had very capable students, simply refuse to do any more work.

Why is this? It’s because they are being told over and over again that they need to work harder and harder by almost every adult in their lives. As a result all sense of control over their lives is lost and the only option that they are left with in order to gain back some little bit of control and normality in their lives is to simply opt out. This is not defiance or self-destruction, this is a young person who is not being listened to telling us in the only way they can, that this is too much, I feel overwhelmed and I cannot cope.

I am not saying that there should not be any stress in our lives. In fact I believe that a little stress at certain times is important. Otherwise we would not be motivated to do anything. But it’s when stress becomes too much, that we find it hard to cope with the demands of life. This is true at any age and we need to do more to help people manage stress in a positive way. I believe that if we teach our young people how to manage stress, in school, that positive stress can be leveraged to become a motivator.

So how do we as parents and educators achieve this? We need to change our approach. At the beginning of this piece I referred to the leaving and junior cert exams as the “terminal exams”. This is a technically accurate term, in that the exams are the end of a period of work. 3 years for the junior cert and 2 years for the leaving cert. However when we think of the word terminal, what do we think of? For me terminal means the end! And this can be a very scary thought.

In order to help our students we need to change our perspective on how we should help them achieve their potential. We need to change the language we use when talking about exams and develop safe and caring learning environments for them to achieve their potential in schools. I see the foundation of this being, the opportunity for young people to explore positive mental well-being in school. Giving them the opportunity to develop their own skills in self-care.

I couldn’t tell you the exact grades I got in my leaving cert, but I can tell you how each of my teachers made me feel. We don’t always remember details of experiences but we do remember how experience made us feel. We want our young people to remain passionate about learning throughout their lives and not extinguish the flames of curiosity before they become adults. Sometimes we can’t change a situation but we can change how we think about a situation. So, if we can’t change the education system, we can change the way we approach it with our young people to help them survive and thrive at a difficult and stressful time in their lives.

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