As high as 42% of Year 12 students suffer from high-level anxiety or stress, and many suffer from depression. It’s no secret that Year 12 can be a huge source of anxiety for both students and teachers alike. Students can struggle to keep up with the intense workload and can put added pressure on themselves to achieve a high ATAR, and as their teacher, all of these stressors are echoed on you.
To help teachers learn new ways to support student mental health and academic success, we hosted the Jacaranda VCE Success Expo in Victoria. We asked Dr. Michael Carr-Gregg, one of Australia’s leading child and adolescent psychologists, to speak to teachers about managing the wellbeing of young people in their care. During this keynote presentation, Michael shared his own practical tips and strategies, based on applied psychological research, to help reduce student stress and increase productivity.
We received great feedback from teachers who attended, and we were delighted to hear they got many great ideas to support their Year 12 students from Michael’s presentation. For those of you who couldn’t attend (or if you just want a refresher), here are some of Michael’s key tips:
Michael’s advice for ATAR anxiety
“If in life if you can’t change something, change the way you think about it”.
This means when your students are dealing with self-doubt and anxiety around their progress they should try to change their mind set from “I need to achieve a high ATAR or I won’t succeed in life” to the exams being “a great opportunity to show the examiners what I know”.
Michael also believes it is always best to take an individual approach with students. Everyone develops at their own pace, and some Year 12 students are simply still trying to figure out who they are and what they want to do in life. A great way to support those students is to remind them that there are many options available, such as:
- Bridging courses – great pathways to get into their preferred course
- Second round offers
- Gap years – this will give them the opportunity to really consider their options and what they want to do
Tips to increase productivty and reduce
stress during Year 12
Michael says to help your students get the most out of their brain power, you first should have an understanding of how the brain works and what can help it perform efficiently. Inside the average student brain there is 100 billion brain cells, 1,000 trillion connections, generating 25 watts of electricity and when watered, fed, rested and exercised it can move as fast as 431.3km per hour. There is a lot going on up there, so here are Michael Carr-Gregg’s top tips to get the most out of it:
- Sleep is your (best) friend
- Study in 20-minute intervals
- Say it and think it out loud
- Breaks are good, constant distractions are bad
- Feed your brain
- Water your brain
- Exercise is essential
- Stress is okay
Tip 1: Sleep is your (best) friend
Michael says young people need “between 8.25 and 9.25 hours of sleep every night for their brain to function optimally the next day”. This amount of sleep will give you enough time to enter the REM stage of sleep or ‘dream sleep’. In ‘dream sleep’, your brain consolidates what you have learnt during the day, moving it from short term memory to long term memory.
The secret to a good night sleep:
- Dim the lights 30 minutes before bed
- Stay consistent – the brain loves routine! This also means avoiding weekend sleep ins (as tempting as they are!).
- Keep cool
- Minimise anxiety
- Avoid stimulants – no coffee or caffeine after midday
Michael also suggested watching a Ted Talk by Professor Russell Foster, a circadian neuroscientist, on why we sleep, sleeping myths and the relationship between sleep and mental health. You may also like to email it to your students so they too can understand why it is so important they prioritise some shut eye.
Tip 2: Study in 20-minute intervals
Study sessions are most effective in short, sharp bursts. Why? The human brain is much better at encoding information into the synapse in short repeated sessions. Michael suggests studying for 20-minutes at a time, followed by a 5-minute break. During breaks do something completely different, like going for a walk down the street or playing with a pet. This will help process information and refresh the mind for more study.
If you are planning on completing an all-day study session, Michael suggests taking longer breaks of around 15 minutes.
Tip 3: Say it and think it out loud
One of the best ways to retain what you are learning is to say it out loud. This strategy has been well known in psychology since 2010 and is known as the ‘production effect’. Thinking out loud, or speaking what you are thinking, has also been proven to help you problem solve and work through tricky tasks.
Tip 4: Breaks are good, constant distractions are bad
We know regular breaks are key to effective study, but distractions are the ultimate study-killer. Once distracted, it can take up to 20 minutes to re-focus your attention, and although humans are capable of multi-tasking, when we do our brain can slow from 432km per hour to just 100km per hour.
One of the biggest distractions to studying is social media, as Michael puts it “screen time is not a student’s friend,” so it is best to take that temptation out of the equation. Do this by putting your phone on silent and in another room during study. Michael also recommends the ‘Cold Turkey’ tool – a free computer program where you can temporarily block social media sites, websites and games.
Tip 5: Feed your brain
Michaels says as high as 32% of students skip breakfast before school. He describes this as a “neurological catastrophe” for a brain trying to study and retain information.
It’s one thing to feed your brain, but feeding your brain the right foods is key to getting the most out of it – Michael knows, he wrote a book on it. Mediterranean-style meals and snacks generally contain the best mix of food to optimise brain function.
Here is Michael’s list of top brain-fuelling food:
- Eggs (contains Choline)
- Greek yogurt (contains Tyrosine)
- Fish oil – preferably sardines or anchovies
- Walnuts and pistachios (contain Melatonin)
Tip 6: Water your brain
The brain is made up of 73% water, and by sipping water at least every 20 minutes while studying you will keep your brain hydrated. A hydrated brain will result in improved focus, concentration and motivation. Michael mentions even when mildly dehydrated (which can be categorised by a slightly dry mouth) concentration can dip by 10 to 20 percent.
Tip 7: Exercise is essential
A report by VicHealth reveals that 92% of Australian teenagers are not meeting daily physical activity requirements. Michael says exercise is great for your physical and mental health, and some of the benefits include:
- Increased production of neurochemicals that promote brain cell repair
- Improved memory
- Longer attention span
- Better decision-making
- Prompts growth new nerve cells and blood vessels
- Improved ability to multi-task and plan
Tip 8: Stress is okay
It is true, a little stress can be good for you! Stress helps the brain perform more efficiently. According to the Yerkes–Dodson Law, some amount of stress is needed to push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioural and cognitive performance. The right amount of acute stress tunes the brain and improves performance and health, so when students tell you they are ‘stressed’, it could be helpful to remind them that they should be stressed – Year 12 is stressful – but some stress is not always a bad thing.
There are two main things Dr. Michael Carr-Gregg wanted teachers to take away from his presentation. First, students need to prepare their brains for success, there is a clear connection between students taking care of their health and their productivity during Year 12. Also, that there are many alternative pathways should students not know what they want to do or get the score they had hoped for – their ATAR does not define them or their future success.
We hope this post helps you in supporting your student’s wellbeing and productivity through their most stressful years of schooling. If you like this post make sure you check out Michael’s tips for managing student wellbeing and cybersafety!