Putting year 12 in perspective

In his book Surviving Year 12, psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg cuts through the hype and emphasis placed on HSC results and puts the year into perspective for students and their parents.

He reassures students that their ATAR score does not define them and there is always a side door to achieving goals. However, according to a 2011 study commissioned by the Australian Psychological Society on stress and wellbeing in Australia, young adults reported higher levels of stress and anxiety than the general population. One of the main areas of concern was study-related issues.

''In my opinion, the HSC has become more and more stressful as time has gone by,'' Jenny McFadden, who has 30 years' teaching experience, says. She has been head of year 12 at Sydney's The Hills Grammar School for more than 10 years and has counselled hundreds of teenagers.

''The HSC is like the sword of Damocles hanging over their head, as if there's nothing else in their lives after that. Here we try to give the kids some perspective on things and help them achieve their best. They attend seminars on study skills, relaxation techniques and organising themselves, to make the final year more manageable.''

Tara is a year 12 student at a private school. Her brother completed his HSC three years ago. According to their mother, he ''exhibited less external signs of stress'' than Tara, who is still ''pretty calm. She does a lot of other things besides study [netball, part-time work, going out with friends], and this probably takes her mind off things''. The family is on HSC-alert and tends to work around Tara's schedules. Tara finds it useful to have boys in her friendship circle as ''males seem to stress less''.

Do boys and girls handle stress differently? According to studies by University of California, Los Angeles, professor Shelley Taylor they do. Taylor suggests there are two basic ways to deal with stress: action (''fight or flight'') or interaction (''tend and befriend'').

Perhaps partly because of underlying hormonal differences between men and women, Taylor found that most women don't employ the ''fight or flight'' system as readily as men; instead, they engage what she calls ''tend and befriend''. She says that when stressed, women tend to move towards safety in interaction with friends and a support network.

These findings tie in with the common view that girls are more likely to cry and become emotional when stressed, and seek help more readily. Boys, on the other hand, are less likely to confront issues, talk to their parents or get help, and more likely to act up.

Margaret Wall heads Learning with Confidence, a private HSC tutoring service for students across Sydney. She agrees that ''anxiety is very contagious with girls; they are more likely to have panic attacks and exam blocks. Boys tend to lock up their feelings and adopt a defensive attitude. Some declare that all is well, even when it isn't.''

With some of her past students breaking down before the exams, Wall says, ''I am very vigilant and attentive to their general wellbeing.''

Shona Parker's son, Michael, sat for the HSC two years ago at a private boys' school. She compares her situation with that of friends with a daughter, and notes that ''in their house, they walked on eggshells because their daughter was prone to hysteria at the slightest thing - house too noisy or not the right snacks available at home''.

Michael, on the other hand, ''just zoned out. He'd be in his room, headphones on.'' Parker says he struggled with nerves in year 11, then got his act together after taking the advice of an ''old boy'' that ''the HSC is not the be-all and end-all''.

''I think he set his sights way beyond the HSC and that may have helped him not get stressed,'' Parker says. ''In retrospect, it was good advice.

''On the other hand, there were many boys in his year who were terribly stressed. At his school, they had more than 10 cases of self-harm in that year alone and at least one attempted suicide, with two boys dropping out entirely.''

McFadden says that in the past five years, it's become more acceptable for boys to admit they're not coping without being seen as weak.

''They are more prepared to talk to someone they know and trust, someone they see other students talking to as well, without any shame attached to it.''

Laurenn Thomas agrees. She is the psychologist at The Hills Grammar School and also sees adolescents in private practice. ''There is a big shift in the stigma. I see equal numbers of boys and girls now,'' she says.

Cay Camden works as a student counsellor at Oakhill College, an independent boys' high school in Sydney that accepts girls in years 11 and 12. She says the students have access to short talks by an expert on mindfulness, covering topics such as visualisation and de-stressing techniques.

''The boys love it because they listen to these on their iPods without anyone knowing what they are doing,'' Camden says. At Oakhill, the boys are used to seeing the counsellors about a range of issues, such as family matters, bullying and mental health.

Camden says ''the boys might suggest the girls come and see us. They [the girls] would never have considered going to the counsellor at their old school.''

McFadden feels that the

co-educational K-12 setting at Hills Grammar is beneficial to the students during the HSC year. She finds that the boys' behaviour in the final years tends to be moderated by the girls.

''The boys have an avenue to discuss with their girl mates how they feel about things. With their male mates, boys tend to be more transactional, like who they partied with, where they went.''

Holly is in year 12 at a public school in Sydney. Like Tara, she works part-time.

''My friends who want to go to uni are just as stressed as I am, but we all help each other through it,'' she says.

''Every now and then, I do go out with friends and family. You can't cut off your social life completely, because that makes it worse. I do try to keep to my normal routine, just cut out television and Facebook.''

This is the second HSC for Holly's parents, so they know what to expect and are aware other pathways to a career exist.

''My parents are more relaxed and I'm definitely the stressed one,'' Holly says. ''The HSC is very stressful, but if I can't handle the stress now, what hope is there for me further in life?''

The story Putting year 12 in perspective first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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