Mental Fitness: Exams and Transitions!

By Adrienne Buckingham | Posted: Thursday November 9, 2017

Term 4 is a stressful time of year. Between exams, subject selection and having an eye on the next academic year - a lot is happening for our boys.

Year 11s are preparing for their first NCEA externals (nerve-racking!), Year 12s are about to hit the hardest exams yet (and aim for UE) and the Year 13s have had one foot out the door since July but are suddenly feeling the weight of what it means to be finishing school, leaving behind friends, teachers and saying farewell to the security of being a dependent.

According to Martin Seligman, former President of the American Psychological Association and a leader in the field of Positive Psychology, wellbeing is a construct with 5 major elements. In the next few weeks we should be helping our boys harness control of these facets to optimize brain functionality and aim for peak performance.

Positive Emotions

Positive emotions are crucial for optimal brain function and no, I’m not talking about ‘glass half full thinking’ or the ever elusive ‘happiness’. Motivation, calm, excitement, pride, connection, interest, anticipation and hope are all feelings we want to encourage and boost in our children and ourselves. Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build Theory suggests that positive feelings enable a learner’s exploratory thoughts and actions. Feeling good allows us to do good, take smart risks and bounce back better when we fail- Resilience!

Learning, exams and transitions all require resilience. And hope! Hope that our efforts will turn out well and not be wasted. Otherwise, what’s the point? Lots of boys who have low well-being, don’t even want to try the external exams. A fear of failure is allowed to dictate actions. An SNA is worse than an N in my class.

An easy way to boost positive emotions is a random act of kindness. And no, I don’t mean randomly buying your son a new pair of rugby boots. Research shows, encouraging him to partake in a random act of kindness will improve his mood more than if he is the recipient.

Some simple evidence based ideas include: giving muesli bars to the guys sleeping rough in the Octagon, helping out at sports club, donating time or money to the food bank, volunteering to help a friend study for a subject, writing a teacher a thank you letter and giving an unexpected gift.


Be here, now. My grandmother used to say this and how true it is. Mediation and mindfulness research shows that being present is both the key to enjoying life and to being productive. Limiting screen time during study is one of the most helpful choices we can make. However, separating a teenager from their phone can cause serious feelings of anxiousness (and resentment). So, just encouraging the phone to be slightly out of reach during a study session is surprisingly effective. And turn off the house wifi at 9:30pm. Everyone needs a good nights sleep.


Trying to keep a parent/child relationship positive can be challenging, especially during times of stress. Aim for the 3:1 Positivity Ratio. For every one 1 corrective comment made (“you need to study harder”), a minimum of 3 positive interactions are needed to build a flourishing relationship (“Thanks for helping with the dishes.”, “What did you like about that tv show?”, “I really thought what you said earlier was funny/thoughtful/helpful.”). Not always easy with the little darlings but certainly worth the effort.


Boys will ask: What’s the point? Why do I still have to go to tutorials? I have the credits, why do I have to sit the exams?

The ‘need to succeed’ is a far more effective motivator than ‘fear of failure’. So when you try to explain the ‘why’ to your sons over the next few weeks it is important to avoid threats like “If you don’t get the credits, you don’t go to uni” and “If you don’t get Level 2, you’ll never get a decent job.” Try “Because I want to see you finish strong.” or “It’s good for your character to persevere when challenges are presented.” and “The more you demonstrate your ability, the more opportunities you’ll have.” Most of those statements (both threatening and inspiring) are true in one way or another but think about the feelings we want to inspire before deciding how to deliver your message. Remember how important positive emotions are?


Progress is an achievement. Accomplishing a task on a to-do list is incredibly rewarding. Celebrate the small goals: the hour of study, the leaving the phone in another room, the new vocab word for Biology. Take a genuine interest in your son’s learning and see the acquisition of knowledge as the achievement, not the letter grade. Pretty soon your boy will be valuing the process, too!

Good luck the next few weeks. Eat well. Sleep lots. Exams and summer holidays will be a rollercoaster- so try to enjoy the adrenaline, pause to take in the view and hang on during the downward slide!

Extra for experts: This TED talk looks at the physiological response to stress and is a great tool to improve our response to stress:

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