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How to help your child handle the stress of NCEA exams

Frequent assessment under NCEA is prolonging the stress faced by teens. Here's what you can do to help ease the burden.

What is an Mcat? If you’re of the era that went through School Certificate and Bursary at secondary school, then it will either mean, “Um, some kind of feline?” or, if you have school-aged kids, “That bloody maths test my child was stressing about”.

My response was the former, now the latter. I was blissfully ignorant until our 15-year-old started preparing for the Maths Common Assessment Task. It has been, in the words of Dre Head in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, “a bumpy ride”.

The Mcat is an external assessment that’s important because it can have implications for what youngsters do at NCEA Level 2. If they get merit, they’re deemed more capable of Level 2 calculus, for example, and if they want to do physics, they’re going to need calculus.

If they want to study computer engineering at university, they might need both physics and calculus, so a lot rides on this one assessment.

This is part of the reason 15- to 19-year-olds are stressing for assessments that they worry will decide their futures.

That’s a lot of pressure. Because my research happens in schools and involves eating biscuits with teachers, I hear anecdotally that NCEA-related stress is increasing. In fact, my team’s work shows that students are more stressed, anxious and depressed than they were six or seven years ago. We’re seeing both a “developmental” effect – 18-year-old Josh is more stressed than 13-year-old Josh was – and a “cohort” effect – Josh is more distressed now than 18-year-olds were five years ago.

How do parents and guardians support young people through this stressful time? I would suggest by validating their experience. “Everybody is under the same pressure as you” may be true, but is also unhelpful. “I know that you’re stressed right now” signals that this feeling is understandable, not pathological.

Many parents grew up under a different tyrannical assessment regime, so may not have a sense of what NCEA is like. Avoid the Monty Python “you were lucky” stuff, such as “back in my day, it all rested on one exam at the end of the year”.

Careers.govt.nz has a web page, “7 steps to stop NCEA study stress”, with a good set of suggestions. These include setting up a space to study, charting or diarying what’s due and when, and making a list of study tasks. Common sense perhaps, and research shows that these are helpful. I really like their next two recommendations: schedule time to relax, and eat and sleep well every day.

Stress is a natural and adaptive response to what’s happening in the world, but it originates from a period in our evolution when the stressors were immediate and life-threatening, and is designed for fight or flight – followed either by, “Phew, I escaped”, or “Bugger, I’m dead now”.

Constant, ongoing assessment (such as with NCEA) means we’re stressed for longer than we’re adapted for. When students feel they need to maximise study time, it may sound crazy to use some of that precious time for frivolous “relaxation”. But research shows that taking a break makes us more effective.

Sleep and food are also pretty important for survival. In the context of study and assessments, regularity and quality are key. Encourage youngsters to go to bed at a reasonable hour and at the same time. Regular sleep-wake times are a foundation for quality sleep.

Food? Here’s a suggestion – make (or otherwise provide) food to see youngsters through the day. Yes, we should encourage youngsters to develop lunch-making skills, but even if you just help out during study times, that’s a great way to ensure they get nutrition and to show that you care.

This article was first published in the October 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.