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CLARE JOHNSTON: Smells like exams spirit – how my teen found his studying nirvana

Exams stress

Much is said and written about the stress of exams for kids. But what about the parents?

The idea of industrious young people across the country diligently following a study timetable each day as they count down to their National 5s or Highers is one which fills me with a sense of inner peace.

This is not, however, how things have come to pass in my house.

For study timetables, insert snack schedules.

For focused concentration on a chosen subject, think TikTok.

And for favourite revision tactic, try procrastination.

Back in my day, the only distractions I had were the fridge (admittedly a powerful one) or daytime TV.

So, with the enthusiasm of Kevin the Teenager, I’d eventually find my way out of bed mid-morning, take an unduly long time preening myself, before fixing an elaborate breakfast of some strange concoction or other, and finally sitting down to start revision.

First though I would draw myself a study plan for the day.

Not to actually follow, just to colour in and look at.

I’d usually get no further than 30 minutes before the vision of a plateful of Cadbury’s Fingers being dunked into a mug of steaming tea would consume me and send me hot-footing it to the kitchen.

Preening took precedence over study for Clare (left) in her school exam years.

And so the cycle would continue over the afternoon.

And after a few hours I’d pat myself on the back for a hard day’s work well done.

Finding time for study in a world of 24-hour connectivity

Before I had teenagers I’d have told you I was an easily distracted sort who could have benefited from a more focused approach.

But if I was a teenager today the old me would look like the most studious of souls in comparison.

Because today’s students are surrounded by distraction beyond compare.

There’s a stream of chats from friends they don’t want to miss out on. Then there’s TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, video games, streaming platforms, all in addition to the lure of the kitchen.

As a parent passing by their bedrooms hoping to see heads buried in books, you’re more likely to see fingers firmly pressed on smart phones.

That’s what I call exams stress.

And having been that mother who has stood pacing the floor, imploring my kids to get off their phones and on with their revision, I’ve learned the hard way that nagging doesn’t work.

Sadly, it has taken me almost 17 years to come to this realisation.

So for those who find themselves at their wit’s end and looking for a way to cut through, here are a couple of tips.

Switch from ranting to realistic

A lot of today’s teenagers may struggle to focus for any significant amount of time, in part because their brains are so used to constant and fast-moving stimulation from social media.

I’ve found piling on the pressure actually makes it worse because their instinct is just to push back and procrastinate even longer.

Distracted teenager
Today’s teens face distractions at every turn.

The stress from nagging also seems to create a fear of and a resentment towards studying that really doesn’t help the situation.

So instead I’ve found it better to have a sympathetic chat about why they’re finding it difficult to put the hours in.

And to agree on at least a two-hour period of the day where they hand their phone over and agree to look at their work.

Even if study is broken into 20/25-minute chunks, it’s a start.

The studying gamechanger

Though this might not work for everyone, I am pleased to say there is an absolute gamechanger in the mix when it comes to exams revision.

The library.

I remembered meeting friends there in my sixth year at school. It was somewhere to study together before hanging out afterwards.

You weren’t allowed to make a noise in the library, so you couldn’t chat.

And there was no kitchen to make your way to every 20 minutes for snacks.

So you were basically forced to get on with it – spurred on by the fact you could see your friends had their heads down and were clearly learning.

A bit of competitive spirit can come in handy too.

To my delight my son has also recently discovered the benefits of library study.

He takes the bus there every morning, puts a couple of hours in, hangs out with his friends over lunchtime and then they go back in for a few hours in the afternoon.

Apart from his phone, he has virtually no distractions and it has changed EVERYTHING.

He’s out of the house away from my beady eye. And he’s found a way of working fun into study while also getting away from the distractions.

Finally, I think we have found our studying nirvana.