Thursday, 4 May 2017

The Keep Calm Exam Guide for parents

Yesterday an article I wrote for The Liverpool Echo was published with advice for both parents and teens.

If you didn't see the article, here is the full text with some links that were not available in the paper.

The Keep Calm Exam Guide for parents

By Jane Gallagher

SATs, GCSEs, A levels and degrees. As a mum of four, almost grown-up children, I have been around the exam block more times than I care to remember. The dark clouds of exam season blackened even the sunniest days between April and August. And while 2013 may have been a good summer, for me it was the darkest of times. I had one child preparing for GCSEs, another taking A levels and the eldest sitting his university finals. Yes, the stress levels were high and not just for my children; my own stressometer was off the scale.

I worried about whether I was nagging too much or too little, whether I should be rewarding their efforts with sweet treats or inedible healthy concoctions. Should I disconnect the wifi or did they need it to access the internet? And the real question behind this stress - what would happen if they didn't make the grade?

And it is not just parents who worry. Anxiety levels among young people are on a rapid incline with exam fears just another to add to the list of worries. Last year ChildLine reported a rise of 20% in calls with concerns about exams. So how can parents support their children at this time?

From my own experience I have two words to offer: let go. Let go of your anxiety. The summer of 2013 had pretty much played on repeat until 2014 when I began studying myself (to become a yoga teacher) and had my own Eureka moment. I decided that it was time to practise what I preached. At the end of teaching a yoga class  I would remind my class that should their thoughts drift back to the past (have they done enough revision?) or ahead to the future (what if they don’t get the grades they need?), remind themselves to come back to the present.

That night in the early summer of 2014 I went home and decided the best way I could help my children was to let go of my own fears and anxieties. Of course I could still do the supportive things and there are lots of excellent online articles about how you can do this. And while I couldn’t make them work harder or less if they didn’t want to, I could take control of the only thing in my power. I could work on reducing my own stress levels. I could made sure that I found time each morning to sit quietly, stretch a little and focus on my breathing. And once I reduced my own stress levels it had an amazing ripple effect. And while I can’t say the exam results in our house have been better since 2014, they certainly haven’t dropped, unlike everyone’s stress levels which have reduced considerably.

Why Yoga Works

Yoga, incorporating breathing exercises, movement and mindfulness has much medical evidence to support its effectiveness. For example, researchers from Boston University’s medical school found that levels of the amino acid Gaba are higher in those who perform yoga than those who don’t. Higher levels of Gaba in your system make you feel happier and more relaxed. It has been proved that focusing on the breath in yoga stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which has a calming effect on the body and can also improve concentration. Dr Katherine Weare, Professor of Education at the University of Exeter concluded in a 2014 report into the practice by saying: “Mindfulness correlates positively with wellbeing, positive emotion, popularity and friendships, and negatively with negative emotion and anxiety.”

How much yoga do you need to do?

In 2016 researchers at Western Sydney University found a 33% reduction in anxiety among patients who practised just 12 minutes of yoga a day compared with those receiving treatment as usual. More importantly, they observed an increase in resilience and frequency of positive experiences and a reduction in the frequency of negative experiences.

Do Good Grades Really Matter?
While exams results can indicate a level of knowledge and skills they are not the only predictor of success in life. The Institute of Directors surveyed its members and found that they valued soft skills — communication, team-working and leadership — just as much as academic and technical skills. Seamus Nevin, Head of Employment of Skills Policy, said: "Exam results are important, but they are only one element of a broad and comprehensive education. And whatever happens, it’s never too late to return to studies. After all, the former lead singer of D:Ream picked himself up after a disappointing Grade D in his A-level Maths to become a Master of the Universe, otherwise known as Professor Brian Cox.

Simple Practices for Parents and their Children
You don’t need to attend a class to gain the benefits of yoga, you can reap the rewards of the ancient science of life by regular practice in the comfort of your own home.
If you have 1 minute try some breath awareness
Sit comfortably with your spine long, eyes closed and hands resting on your lap. Take your attention to the part of your body where you feel your breath. Notice how you are breathing and then take your awareness to the tip of your nostrils. Notice the cool air entering your body and with your mind’s eye follow that breath. Notice where the inhale becomes and exhale and where the inhale becomes an exhale. Spend one minute riding the wave of your breath.
If you have 3 minutes
Follow the Breathing Space Meditation by Professor Mark Williams, Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford which is available on youtube. 

If you have 12 minutes

Begin with 5 minutes of breath awareness, move through five rounds of Sun Salutation A (tutorials on youtube) and conclude by lying quietly in a comfortable position and take yourself through an auto-suggestive relaxation by saying silently to yourself (‘I relax my feet, I relax my feet, my feet are relaxed’ and so on moving through the whole of your body and ending with the crown of your head). 

If you have time for just one pose
Try Viparita Karani otherwise known as Legs Up The Wall Pose which is perfect for tired bodies and helps to calm anxious minds.

Simply lie close to the wall with your legs supported by the wall. Rest your hands by your sides, above your head or lightly on your abdomen and feel the expansion of your abdomen as you inhale and the gentle release as you exhale. Keep the back of the neck long and soften your shoulders into the floor. Stay here for up to 10 minutes with your eyes closed.

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