How to help Year 12 students get through a tough year

Keeping a routine, maintaining perspective, and staying connected - these are some of the ideas from University of Melbourne experts for families to support their Year 12 students, writes Joe Sullivan.

Usually, last week would have seen many students returning to school. But here in Victoria, they’re at home – after Premier Daniel Andrews announced that most students would be studying from home during their second term of the school year.

For those students in their final year of high school who are already preparing for the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) or Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL) later in the year, this is a big challenge.

The Premier says Year 12 students will complete VCE this year and receive an ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank) score, but it’s likely to be  ‘longer year’ with exams held in December.

Finishing secondary school is a rite of passage for many students that brings with it a series of rituals and celebrations. So, adjusting to this ‘new normal’ is going to provoke some big emotions for young people.

So, how can families support Year 12 students to be clear about their goals and a plan for achieving them? And what can students do themselves to get through a tough year?

We asked our experts for tips to help the class of 2020 continue on their way towards VCE or VCAL.

Why a routine is important

Dr Sean Kang, a senior lecturer in the Science of Learning, says now more than ever is a time for Year 12 students to be clear about what their goals are and how to achieve them.

‘With online learning now the norm for the foreseeable future, having a schedule will help overcome some of these challenges,’ says Dr Kang.

A schedule will help keep your learning activities on track and minimise distractions. But it’s important to incorporate regular breaks and opportunities for revisiting previously studied topics – spacing out your practice can help promote consolidation of learning.”

Educational psychologist Dr Chelsea Hyde agrees, and adds that setting up a designated work zone can help students to work to a structured day where possible.

‘For students studying online, a school timetable will still be in place, but you also need to ensure that your daily schedule includes a balance of academic, creative, physical and social activities,’ she says.

While many students will experience some level of challenge in their studies resulting from disruptions to schooling, VCE students are likely to be particularly anxious. For students with social-emotional differences, like autism, these disruptions can make a difficult year even harder.

Matthew Harrison is a lecturer and researcher in autism inclusion who is working to support neurodiverse VCE students in the transition to remote learning.

‘Away from synchronous instruction, students benefit from building consistent study routines. Students should create a study plan with set hours for each subject,’ he says.

‘This includes regular sensory breaks away from screens or bright lights.’

Focus on what you can control – and stay positive

Associate Professor Aaron Jarden from the Centre for Positive Psychology says that during periods of change, stress, grief or adversity, there are strategies and skills that can be developed and deployed to buffer negative impacts.

A key factor is the importance of focussing on ‘what is most important right now’.

‘That’s not likely to be meeting particular learning outcomes, but rather looking after your physical, emotional mental health, and that of your family and friends,’ says Associate Professor Jarden.

One step, according to educational psychologist Dr Chelsea Hyde, is to focus on what you can do.

‘A positive mindset is going to help students cope with changed circumstances,’ says Dr Hyde.

‘VCE and the final year of school will look completely different but there are things you still have control over.

‘Keeping up with schoolwork and setting goals for the future will help with motivation. Look ahead and don’t give up.’

When it comes to supporting neurodiverse students, Mr Harrison says ‘my first piece of advice is discussing with your teachers some of the challenges you or your child might experience in communicating through video conferencing tools.’

‘Ask teachers to explicitly state their expectations and instructions, avoid sarcasm, and allow students enough processing time.’

Associate Professor Jarden says it’s also important to identify your strengths.

‘Think about what energises you, then plan to intentionally use them more. Think about what is meaningful for you in your life right now. Think about what is purposeful.

‘This can help increase levels of hope, which also buffers against the bad and increases your resilience.’

Keeping perspective: you are not alone

Dr Hyde emphasises how important it is to keep perspective.

‘You can take solace from knowing you aren’t alone. Students both nationally and internationally are having to rapidly adapt to a radically different 2020 school year,’ she says.

‘The bigger picture is that students worldwide are all in this together.’

To help keep this perspective Associate Professor Jarden recommends trying to work on having realistic expectations.

‘You aren’t just ‘studying from home’ but trying to learn and study in a time of pandemic crisis,’ he says.

‘Stop comparing yourself to others or judging yourself based on how you are coping. Effort still counts, but outcomes such as success should be minimised during this time.

‘It’s also important to be kind to yourself, and others. Kindness builds bonds and social connections, which are needed during times of crisis.’

Dr Kang adds that there are practical steps you can take to help yourself.

‘As you study, periodically pause and take a moment to reflect, summarise, or test yourself,’ says Dr Kang.

According to Dr Kang, summarising not only improves the organisation of the information you are trying to learn, but it helps gauge comprehension of the material.

‘Similarly, testing yourself – using flashcards, quizzes – not only enhances learning, it helps you figure out what you do and don’t know. Good monitoring of your progress means you can adjustment your strategy or focus as you need to.’

How tech can help

Dr Joanne Blannin, senior lecturer and digital learning leader at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, says digital technologies can really help in this challenging time.

‘Although technology can’t replace human interactions, making considered choices about technology can help learning,’ she says.

And there are a number of really helpful tools available.

Trello, for one, can help you get organised by creating a board for your studies.

‘Trello is a virtual whiteboard with features that take advantage of multimedia. Check your board each day and update it as you need,’ says Dr Blannin.

‘You also might be asked to work in small groups on a project. Microsoft Teams is free software that you can download and offers discussions, file sharing and collaborative online writing.’

Then there are apps that keep track of your study time.

‘You can use Marina Timer and the Pomodoro Technique to keep yourself on track. Work in 25-minute chunks and reward yourself with five-minute breaks after each one.’

Dr Blannin also suggests sharing your timer with your friends and so you can all work to the same time.

To be sure you get the most out of online learning, make a plan for taking notes.

‘It’s still so important to take notes and focus on making connections between ideas and concepts. Using some of the online mind-mapping software out there means you can co-create a map of notes with classmates,’ says Dr Blannin.

Leveraging technology can help you make sense of what you are learning, provide a structure for your learn-at-home school day and create a secure record of your learning.

But, with learning moving online, it’s imperative to back up your work.

‘With changes to exam times and ongoing discussions about how to measure your learning this year, be sure to keep all your work in a safe place,’ she says. ‘Check your cloud storage and this article here offers some good suggestions about how to get started.’

Mr Harrison says although technology is helpful, there are extra considerations for neurodiverse students.

‘Ask teachers to use the highlight functions available through digital tools rather than give verbal directions such as “to look at the top left” or physically pointing. For many (neurodiverse students) integrating verbal and non-verbal communication is difficult,’ he says.

Asking for help

All school students should be able to count on teachers right now, says Dr Kang, for guidance in terms of their learning goals as well as any criteria for determining successful learning.

But it’s also important for students to know when to seek clarification and feedback along the way. So, over this period, it’s vital that students have a clear line of communication to their teachers.

Associate Professor Jarden agrees.

‘It’s important to connect more regularly with those that support you. Asking for help is a skill that predicts who comes through a traumatic experience better.’

And it’s that connection that can also make a difference emotionally, says Dr Hyde.

‘It’s critical to maintain points of connection to avoid feelings of isolation and loneliness,’ she says.

‘Keeping in regular contact with your peers and teachers can help you feel grounded and provide a sense of normality,’ she says.

Parents and friends can also play a critical role in managing stress.

‘Talk about your feelings with a trusted adult. Acknowledge negative emotions but avoid ruminating on situations outside your control as it will only create more anxiety,’ says Dr Hyde.

‘There is no rule book for how you should feel right now, but it’s important to monitor your mood, share your emotions with others and seek professional support if you need it.’

This article was first published on Pursuit. Read the original article.

The experts who were interviewed:  Associate Professor Aaron JardenDr Chelsea HydeDr Joanne BlanninDr Sean Kang and Matthew Harrison