by Jacklyn R. Leitzel, PhD, Penn College Counselor
As the first snow falls in Northcentral Pennsylvania, we are reminded that winter, and the semester break, will soon be here. This is a time in the academic year when students may experience anticipation and excitement about the break, but also anxiety and apprehension about what needs to be done before they are able to relax. Papers and final projects are due, final exams consume the last week of school. Students cope with academic stress in a variety of ways, some more effectively than others. You may sense that your student is struggling, or you may receive a frantic call in the middle of the night. Either way, this article provides you with ideas about how to help your student to successfully navigate through this difficult time. You may find that some of them help you as well!
As concerned parents, your first response when your student is upset is to give advice. And, certainly you will want to do just that. However, don’t underestimate the value of simply listening. Often having the opportunity to vent and perhaps get a little support and sympathy can reduce stress and allow your student to refocus on school work. If you believe that a little advice will be appreciated, read on!
Often the the best approach is proactive – talk with your student before you notice a problem. Thanksgiving break might be a good time to have this conversation. After all, there is only one week of classes between the break and Finals Week! You may want to include the following hints in your conversation. Encourage your student to:
Maintain healthy self-care habits – Eat sensibly - a balanced diet will provide all the necessary energy you will need during the day. Be mindful of the effects of excessive caffeine and sugar on nervousness. Be sure to get sufficient rest at night.
Get Organized – Develop a schedule of daily activities that includes time for work, sleep, relationships, and recreation. Use a daily "things to do" list. Use your time and energy as efficiently as possible. Set realistic and attainable goals. Be careful of procrastination - breaking tasks into smaller units and prioritizing will help get things done.
Practice Time Management – If you frequently check your watch or worry about what you do with your time, learn to take things a bit slower. Allow plenty of time to get things done. Plan your schedule ahead of time. Recognize that you can only do so much in a given period. Practice the notion of "pace, not race."
Learn to Relax – Throughout the day, take “minibreaks." Sit-down and get comfortable, slowly take a deep breath in, hold it, and then exhale very slowly. At the same time, let your shoulder muscles droop, smile, and say something positive like, "I am r-e-l-a-x-e-d." Unwind by taking a quiet stroll, soaking in a hot bath, watching a sunset, or listening to calming music.
Develop rational self-talk – Ask yourself what real impact the stressful situation will have on you in a day or a week and see if you can let the negative thoughts go. Rather than condemn yourself with hindsight thinking such as, "I should have...," think about what you can learn from the error and plan for the future.
Exercise – Physical activity provides relief from stress. Develop a regular exercise program to help reduce the effects of stress before it becomes distress. Try aerobics, walking, jogging, dancing, swimming, and the like.
Talk to Friends – Friends can be good medicine. Daily doses of conversation, regular social engagements, and occasional sharing of deep feelings and thoughts can reduce stress quite nicely.
Take advantage of Penn College’s resources and support services – This could be the most important piece of advice that you can give your student. Often students are unaware of where to get help, or are reluctant to ask. As a result, they may struggle unnecessarily. Listed below are a few resources that students might want to utilize, not only at the end, but rather throughout the semester.
- Classroom instructors – Instructors are available to assist students when they are having trouble understanding the course material, and are often willing to work with students who have fallen behind in their work. However, students need to let instructors know when they need help. Instructors have regular office hours, and also can be contacted via e-mail.
- Academic Success Center – Located in the Klump Academic Center, Room 141. This office offers workshops, tutoring, and personalized attention to any Penn College student.
- Counseling Services – Located in the Bush Campus Center, Room 204. Counselors are available to assist students with career, academic, and personal issues.
- Residence Life Staff – Residents assistants (RAs) are experienced upperclassmen who can assist students who are going through college finals for the first time, and are able to provide support and helpful hints. In addition, RAs often sponsor study breaks during Finals Week, providing an opportunity for students to relax, enjoy a snack, and talk to other students. Misery often does love company!
A few students sail through Finals Week with no visible signs of stress. Many, if not most, students experience low to moderate levels of stress, which fade quickly once the week is over. However, some reactions to Finals Week, and the end of the semester in general, are longer lasting. If your student has not done well academically, he or she may remain stressed even after arriving finals are over. Again, providing support and reviewing the tips above for the Spring semester can be helpful.
It is important to note that academic stress can trigger a more serious response. Depression and anxiety are not uncommon in the college population. Symptoms such as decreased energy, changes in sleep and appetite, lack of interest in interacting with friends and family, sad or anxious mood, and hopelessness lasting more than two weeks may be signs of a more serious problem. Community resources are usually available if you feel like your student may need professional help. And, though the Counseling Services Office is not staffed during the break, students can schedule an appointment when classes resume in January.
Experiencing final exams is a rite of passage for all college students. And, though it may not seem like it in the moment, the week passes quickly and students are free to enjoy a well-deserved break. Commuter students will be spending more time at home, and resident/off-campus students will return home for a few weeks. If you are feeling stressed as you read this last paragraph, you may want to refer to some of the tips above. As a parent of college aged students, I particularly recommend “Learn to relax” and “Practice rational self-talk!”