Andrew Fuller: Stay Calm and Carry On. How parents can help their VCE students

In the latest in The Best of The Parents Website series, here's one of our most popular posts by clinical psychologist Dr Andrew Fuller, on how you can support your student in Years 11 and 12.

When you have a teenager completing the senior years of school, everyone in the family is doing Year 11 or Year 12. Here are a few ideas for coming through these years flourishing, and having everyone’s dignity intact.

Parents have a vital role in helping students:

  • manage time
  • manage energy
  • manage stress
  • manage to get everything in at the right time and in the right place.

In addition to this you have to manage yourself.

Developing the System

Regular planned times for study throughout the year creates better results. Short regular sprints of learning are more effective than long study marathons. To create this, you need to work out a system.

Sit down with your teenager and map out an ideal week, including:

  • times for sleeping (at least eight hours a night)
  • times for unwinding and relaxing
  • best breakfast foods
  • the best times for study
  • the best time of the week for consolidating notes and extending memory
  • time to catch up with friends
  • required school hours
  • time for part-time work (less than 10 hours a week)
  • how to handle invitations around exam times.

Without a plan, you are simply left with doing what you like when you feel like it,  and often, feeling like studying is not probably the most likely emotion in teenagers’ lives.

Study sprints should be ideally 20 minutes long and never longer than 50 minutes, with a 10 minute break between study sessions.

Usually on the weekend, have some time set aside for organising information and testing memory of new information.

Patiently, talk through the system until you all feel that you have the best plan. Ask them how often you should remind them of the system when they don’t seem to be following it.

You may also need to discuss minimising distractions – excessive social media use, listening to music while studying, multi-tasking or chatting with friends online is not compatible with studying. Multi-tasking is just splitting your attention and means you’ll need to study four times longer than you need to.

As a parent of a VCE student, keep yourself informed. Come to information sessions and parent-teacher meetings yourself. Stressed students don’t always store detailed information well, so take notes of key dates and requirements.

Steering students back to the system

It is hard to get through Year 11 or Year 12 without some meltdowns. When a meltdown occurs, rather than starting a long conversation about it or providing a motivational pep talk, think about what your student needs. Food? Rest? Exercise? Some social time? Try to quietly arrange for this to occur.

How to deal with the catastrophic thinking

Pacifying or reassuring the unsettled VCE student is a fine art. Acknowledge to yourself in advance that anything you are likely to say is probably going to be heard as the ‘wrong thing’.

Generally what you do is more important than what you say. Providing meals, comfort and for some, reassuring hugs is often more powerful than words.

Some teens ‘freeze up with fear’ and want to avoid schoolwork completely. Try to avoid getting into lengthy debates about the merits of the current educational system or their own intellectual ability. Instead, go back to basics. Feed them. Hydrate them. Rest them. Then gently bring them back to the topic.

Ask them to tell you what they do understand about an issue. They will initially begin with, ‘I know nothing’. Say to them, ‘Well, tell me what you think you know.’  Slowly rebuild confidence.

What to do when the System breaks down

When you are planning the system, develop a rule of ‘never miss twice’. We know there are days when even the most well thought through system falls into tatters. Accept this but also plan never to miss twice. For example, I can take a complete break from my study routine for one day but not for two days in a row.

Around August is the most common time for students to become disheartened and lose motivation. However, the work done in August and September probably adds more to the final results that any other stage of the year. The reason is that by this time most of the basics have been covered and we are now able to add the higher order thinking and deepen understanding.

If taking on new information seems too much at this time, go through the process with them of organising information, drawing up flow charts, making memory aides and consolidating notes.

What if my teenager won't listen to me?

Have a confidential chat with one of their key teachers so that they can have a conversation with your teenager directly about their progress and study strategies.

How to deal with the build up to exams

Here is the time to trust the system. Keep things as calm and consistent as you possibly can. Ensure that your teenager has enough sleep, good food, exercise and social time.

Consider ceasing part-time work in the lead up to exams. Also discuss not using or at least lessening the use of social media sites.

If your family has major birthdays during this period it may be worth delaying celebrations until after the exam period.

It is not the end of the world.

Your teenager’s Year 12 result is not their future. There are many other more important determinants of success and happiness in life.

Many people who did not get the Year 12 results that they wanted find careers where they thrive.

Above all, remain calm and believe in your teenager. Adding an anxious parent to a panicking teenager is always a recipe for disaster.

Copyright Andrew Fuller

To mark the publication of 500 articles on The Parents Website, we’ve launched a series of some of the highlights. The articles we’ve selected for The Best of The Parents Website are a combination of the most popular, as well as thought-provoking pieces we think stand out.

This article was originally published in March 2016.

About Andrew Fuller

Andrew is a clinical psychologist specialising in the wellbeing of young people and their families.

Stay in touch with Andrew on Facebook, on LinkedIn, through his website and on the My Learning Strengths website

His most recent book is Tricky Behaviours  published by Bad Apple Press, RRP $32.99

Previous books include Your Best Life At Any Age  and Unlocking your Child’s Genius.

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