The intense pressures of getting through the exams and achieving the best possible results affect not only the well-being of the learners but their families as well. Just when they need to be at their peak, mentally, physically and emotionally, debilitating fears strike and stress levels soar. We put Samantha Pretorius, Counselling Psychologist and Head of Programme at SACAP (the South African College of Applied Psychology) on the couch to tackle top issues impacting on South African matriculants and their parents as they prepare for exams:

How do I effectively plan and manage my study time?

We are all different and your study plan should be tailored to suit you best. You need to know the times when you are generally most effective. We all have peak mental and energetic times – it could be first thing in the morning, the afternoon, in the early evening or in the quiet of the night. Observe when you are most alert, energised and productive, and then schedule your most challenging tasks during those times while your least challenging tasks can be dealt with during your off-peak times.

You also need to devise your study timetable based on how much structure suits you. Some people like their activities to be very structured, almost by the hour, while others work best within a more open-ended approach whereby large blocks of time (for example, an afternoon) are allocated to certain tasks. Prioritising is also very important. It can be helpful to categorise all your activities according to whether they are urgent, important or ‘can wait for later’. Once you have identified your times of peak performance, your optimum structure and your priorities, you need to create your study time-table so that you have a concrete, visual representation of your plan to guide your activities and monitor your progress.

How do I create balance during study time?

You need to plan for balance – it doesn’t just happen. While focus is likely to be on your studies, to function optimally you need time for rest and relaxation, for physical activity and play. Your self-care needs to be a priority at this time. You need to be eating healthily, sleeping well and ensuring you take refreshing breaks for exercise and socialising. While the necessity to spend so many hours on academics is very real, you won’t be doing yourself any favours if you completely cut out the activities that revive and relax you. While you might not be able to hang out with friends for five hours, as you would like to, it is possible to make plans to get together for an hour from time to time. Similarly, while you might not be able to enjoy two-hour workouts at the gym each day, you can schedule 10-minute walks or a quick run round your neighbourhood and get daily exercise. You will find that focusing on looking after yourself well sets a positive tone during this time. Focus on eating well, and have lots of healthy snacks such as nuts, fruit and biltong close to hand. Another important aspect of balance is to be aware of what can potentially distract you from your studies and create severe bouts of stress. While it may be healthy to take a break to relax and watch an episode of your favourite TV programme, being tempted to stay on the couch and watch a whole season in one night can have a disastrous impact on your study schedule. Likewise communicating with friends on social media can be compelling, and before you know it the quick check on your phone leads to hours of time-wasting. Rather keep your devices away from you while you study, and then schedule short breaks to respond to just the most important communications of the day and catch up on your Facebook and Twitter newsfeed.”

How do I silence my inner critic?

Your inner critic is the negative internal voice that often comes out when you are under pressure. Annoyingly, when you sense that the stakes are high for you, it can be at its loudest. Where does this voice come from? Well, it could be echoing the voice of a critical parent, an intolerant teacher or a bully who has impacted on you. Someone can say something to us just once, in a particular circumstance and we may carry that through much more time and apply it to multiple situations. Self-talk such as: ‘You will never pass Matric’ or ‘You can’t make it’ or ‘You won’t amount to anything’ are examples of the utterings of your inner critic. The best way to deal with this downer-character is to become aware of it, gain insights into where it came from and then challenge it with evidence from your real life that it is wrong. For example, if you are studying Maths and your inner critic pipes up with: ‘You can’t do Maths, you’re going to fail this’ you can challenge this negative thought it with the reality that since you are busy studying Maths at Matric level, you have passed a lots of Maths tests and exams, and therefore you can do it.

Don’t hesitate to talk back to your inner critic and show it the proof of your success. You can also dilute the impact of your inner critic when you engage in positive self-talk. Regularly affirming that you are smart and that you can do it builds confidence, increases your energy and puts you on the road to success – after all, everything starts with an idea. Let your Matric exam experience start with the idea that you can ace it. Find success quotes and ‘can-do’ statements that inspire you and make you feel motivated, and put them up in places where you see them often during a day.

Another effective tactic to take power away from your inner critic is to externalise it. It might seem silly in the written word but in practice this works well. If you are battling an inner critic, disempower it by giving it a silly name and calling it out. ‘Hmmm, Negative Nancy is at it again’ or ‘Oh look, Pessimistic Pete has come out to play’. Challenge it, and own your power. Of course, you may also experience negative talk from external sources as well, and just as you need to guard against your inner critic, you may find that you need to protect yourself from, and avoid others who bring you down or criticise you.

What role can parents play during the challenging study time?

A common reaction, that does not help, is when parents inadvertently minimise their child’s experience by adopting a ‘been there, done that, now you can too’ approach, which can be received as patronising and unsupportive. It is important that their child’s challenges and stresses are acknowledged. ‘I understand’ is a far more effective and supportive stance.

Parents can provide on-going encouragement and impetus by simply acknowledging their child’s efforts. Noticing and affirming their choices such as turning down a party to study or going for a quick run before getting back to the books can lift the spirits and instil confidence.

Parents can support balance during study time by suggesting breaks and providing healthy foods and snacks. What is also important and requires some introspection is for parents to keep their expectations about this particular child’s Matric process and outcomes realistic and make adjustments if they are not. Each child is different, and your child currently going through matric won’t be going through it like older siblings might have. It is also helpful that if your matriculant has time-consuming family responsibilities to find ways to temporarily relieve them.

Parents can do much to create an enabling environment that helps them to keep their focus, stick to their study schedule and pay attention to their well-being. Model a healthy balance by inviting them out for walk or suggesting watching a favourite TV programme when they’ve been locked in studies for hours. Provide positive, encouraging, ‘can-do’ communications.”

Join SACAP’s ‘On the Couch’ chat sessions on Facebook every Tuesday night on the Mindset Facebook page from 3 November, where more questions are addressed, and matriculants and parents can engage directly with experts to get the support they need over this time. For any matriculant interested in the field of psychology and counselling, SACAP offers a wide range of qualifications including (Higher Certificate, Advanced Certificate, Diploma, BAppSocSci, BPsych and BsocSci Honours) and a one-of-a-kind approach to learning: academic rigour and applied skills. Graduating confident “work ready” practitioners is key, which is why SACAP combines an academically rigorous curriculum with a strong emphasis on the ability to apply knowledge through the training of relevant skills. Registration for term one, closes at the end of January.