A Message to Students in the Thick of Exams …

A Message to Students in Their Final Year of School

We’re behind you, cheering you on to the finish line. You might be feeling stressed, overwhelmed, confused and so damn tired – we understand that, but keep going. Give it everything you’ve got – you’re nearly there – and know that whatever happens next, you’ve got what it takes for an amazing life. Your final grades won’t change that. 

During the next few weeks, remember that nothing that happens now has to determine what happens next. The potential in you is breathtaking, whether you’ve realised it yet or not. There will be choices, twists and turns in your path, and a lot of that path won’t be anything like you imagined. That’s one of the beautiful things about life. Sometimes things will work out exactly as you thought, and sometimes things will be different. It’s in the unexpected that the magic happens so take notice of your disappointments – they are often opportunities, disguised as something else. 

As you sit down to your exams you owe it to yourself to work hard and do your best, but know that the results won’t be a measure of you. There is no exam, block of exams, or assessment that will even come close to showing what you are capable of, or the life that’s waiting for you.

Exams will test your memory and your understanding of a particular concept, not your intelligence. They’ll show you what you are capable of during one particular hour of one particular day in one particular subject. It might be a subject that lights up your potential, or it might not.   

Education is powerful, but some of the most powerful things your time at school would have given you won’t be found on the periodic table or between the dog-eared pages of a maths book. Your education given you the capacity to have a voice and a presence – whether that’s through the way you use words, the way you create, the way you play sport or perform – or maybe it’s something else. It’s shown you that setbacks are temporary, disappointment doesn’t last and enough courage can lift you out of anywhere. It’s given you opportunities to flourish your resilience and your wisdom about the way the world works. It’s shown you a lot – a lot – about people, and given you insight that can only come from experiencing good ones and not so good ones. It’s taught you about the relationships to seek out and the ones to steer clear of – you’ll come across plenty of both. 

Hopefully, above all else, it’s taught you that you can learn anything and do anything when you put in the effort.

You may not have found whatever it is that ignites you yet. For you, that might be yet to come. Know that in you is everything you need to set the world on fire. Whether you realise it or not, it’s there – I promise you.

It’s important to work hard and give it everything you’ve got, but know that there are so many more things about you that will determine the life you have. Most of the things, if not all of the things that will make you successful, happy and give you a wonderful life will not be measured by the exams you’re about to take. 

They can’t test the person you are. They can’t test the way people you haven’t met yet will want to know you, love you, have you as part of their team or leading it. They can’t test your creativity, your courage, your wisdom, your resilience or your intelligence. You have the potential for greatness – whatever that looks like for you. Don’t let a grade tell you otherwise. Here’s why …

Your brain is going through a growth spurt – a massive one. It’s been on fire since you were about 12 and it will keep going until you’re about 24, so you’re only halfway through. You might not have yet discovered some of the things you’ll be good at. Your brain is hungry to learn and the exciting thing is that you’re about to enter a stage of your life where you get to decide what to feed it. You get to decide what to learn, what to excel at, where to put your time and energy. 

Right now, and for about the next 6 years, your brain is primed to learn, grow, strengthen and help you become whatever you want to be. Don’t worry if you don’t know what that is yet. There’s time for that. In the meantime, be open to new things – new people, new places, new experiences, new adventures, new ideas and see which ones feel right. Everybody has it in them to be great at something. Don’t let a test, an assessment, a person, a mistake or a bad grade tell you anything different. 

You have incredible power to open all sorts of doors and shape the life you want. This power is yours and nobody can take it from you. It’s yours regardless of the marks you get. You can’t even know the doors you’ll open, and you’ll find the way to open them whether you get the grades you want or not.  You don’t have to have it all figured out yet. 

Your path will be crooked, unexpected and beautiful, which is exactly the way it should be. Don’t let any of the bends or detours change your belief in your own potential, or the wonderful depth and richness of you.

Know that we’re behind you all the way.

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10 Comments

Neshni

This is beautifully written and an inspiring message for final year students. I am sharing on my social media platforms and with the students I tutor. Thank you.

Reply
Audrey

Well written words
Such an inspiration for a young person facing his final exams
Thanks

Reply
Miracle Jones

This is great exactly what i was looking for my high school senior friend.Thank’s a lot.

Reply
Eithne

Karen every word you write is amazing. I’d say my friends think I’m on commission for you!! I love how optimistic, gentle, and respectful towards young people your writing is. Your way of framing anxiety in a positive and accepting light has been very helpful in our family. I recommend you to SO many people. Looking forward to your book when it comes. It’ll be a bestseller here in Ireland anyway if I have my way! But to be honest I’m sure it’ll be a bestseller regardless.
Best wishes.

Reply
Bonnie

This is beautiful. I can’t wait to share this with my son! This is just what he needs during this crazy time of college and scholarship applications, essays, campus tours and standardized tests. This time can be difficult for anyone but especially for someone with anxiety, panic and depression. Thank you for the words that convey exactly what I feel.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome. I hope it brings your son some comfort. I wish him all the very best with his exams and assessments. If only they all knew how amazing they are!

Reply
Denise

Beautifully said, thoughtfully written and exactly the words to share with my own year 12 daughter. Thank you Hey Sigmund!

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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