Under Stress Over Assessment

Ordained minister, school guidance counsellor and father of two teenage boys, GEOFF KING offers some insights into NCEA, students’ responses to stress, and how we can support our kids.

As a parent, how can I get my head around NCEA?
NCEA was introduced quite recently (between 2002 and 2004), so parents of 2017 have no personal experience on which to draw in supporting their children through the process. The good news is that parents’ lack of understanding can be a positive thing, as it provides a valuable opportunity for meaningful communication with their children about how to make the most of their time at school.

First, take a few minutes to do some research – the New Zealand Government Careers website offers valuable information on understanding NCEA. Second, talk with your son or daughter, and with the dean or teacher in charge of their year group: find out how many credits they need to gain entry into whichever course(s) they may want to undertake in the future, and help them to work out the best ways to obtain them.

How do adolescents respond to stress around assessments?
Young people respond to the pressures of examinations and assessment in a wide variety of ways. Those whose response is to ‘fight’ may be at risk of burning themselves out by studying too hard. Those whose default response is to ‘flee’ may well exhibit avoidance behaviours: socialising more (especially via social media), self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, or even playing sport as a form of distraction. Others might feel genuinely paralysed with fear (and ‘freeze’) at the prospect of sitting an examination.

My son doesn’t seem stressed enough. How can I help motivate him to study?
The single most important motivational factor for anyone in the lead-up to any kind of examination is to have some sense of connection between what is being examined and a meaningful life goal. Even when this is not immediately apparent, it may be possible to identify an indirect link. For example, a student may rightly protest that the Pythagorean Theorem is of limited use for his/her future, but the numeracy credits gained in a Mathematics exam will facilitate entry into an engineering course which s/he wishes to undertake.

School guidance counsellors, career counsellors and deans are useful sources of information to help parents support their young people with study programmes, exam techniques, time management and goal setting. Many schools provide opportunities for students to receive extra tuition from teachers and in some cases from more senior students.

Mine is highly motivated, but also highly stressed and overcommitted. What can I do?
Often, these highly motivated but also highly stressed young people have little or no ‘down time’ – or they spend their ‘down time’ doing highly (inter)active things. I would encourage the parents of such young people to examine their own expectations and life priorities. Is the young person encouraged and enabled to relax and unwind at home? Is the young person’s level of stress helped or hindered by his or her involvement in social media? What messages is the young person receiving from parents/caregivers about work/life balance? How actively is the young person encouraged to do things for no other reason than because it is fun?

On an emotional level, I draw on insights I’ve gleaned from attending presentations by the Brainwave Trust, and invite parents/caregivers to look for signs of adolescent openness and accessibility before trying to have a ‘deep and meaningful’ conversation. I’m also an advocate of ‘little and often’, in the sense of trying to ask young people how they’re feeling about things regularly, and accepting that sometimes they’ll feel grumpy and stressed for no particular reason, just as older people do.

If a young person is sad or angry about how pressured his or her life has become because of school and other commitments, my response is to acknowledge and ‘make space’ for the emotion, and then to ask what a preferred future would look like, and what might consequently need to change.

Want to know more about NCEA? Check out: careers.govt.nz/courses/still-at-school/how-to-understand-ncea