7 Steps to Keep Your Teenagers Brains Healthy and Strong for the Final Weeks of School

helping kids through finals weekSo as the school year comes to an end and winds down, parents are at home trying to support their kids and teens through the stress of these final weeks: writing papers, taking finals, exams, quizzes, reading logs, math tests, science memorizing…etc… And this is usually on top of all those extracurricular activities parents try so hard to support as their kids pursue their passions outside of the classroom. But suddenly it all stacks up and for a few short weeks, the pressure and tension increase in teenagers’ bodies, mentally and physically, as they must learn to multi task and deal with this increased stress in their lives.

So how can you, the parent(s) help support your kids/teens stay healthy and strong mentally and physically during these busy last weeks? Over the past 13 years of working with kids and teens in elementary through high school classrooms, I have compiled the 7 most important actions I have seen help decrease stress levels, promote self-care, create healthier brains and bodies, and balance emotions, and leave students ready for learning and performing better on their final academic tasks. Please know I am not a doctor, but I am sharing from my own experience over the last decade with kids, so take it or leave it for what works for you and your family.

#1 Keep your and your kid’s/teen’s Blood Sugar balanced throughout the day

One of the most important things you can do to help with your son or daughter’s ability to study and perform well on finals is keeping their blood sugar balanced and avoiding bouts of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). This goes for your own brain as well because your kids/teens need you, their parents, to be balanced and healthy to support them, especially during this busy time of the year.

To function properly, everyone’s brain needs oxygen and glucose.  As you know, if you are without air, or short of oxygen, your brain starts to act in ways that are out of your control. Many people are unaware of is how vital glucose is for the brain—and that it can affect your ability to mentally function just as much as oxygen. Glucose is a little less noticeable than oxygen; you feel your lungs filling with air and hear with the sound of your breath. Oxygen screams a bit louder when it is out of wack. Low blood sugar can be more silent and creep up on you before it comes to your attention.

While working as an EMT and Wilderness EMT, I have been taught to watch for the “mumbles, grumbles, and stumbles” which are all signs of an altering mental status, which can have a couple of causes, one of them being hypoxia (low oxygen getting to the brain) and the other being hypoglycemia (low blood sugar getting to the brain—low glucose).

Over the years, I have observed that the classes I teach before snack break and before lunch get a bit more squirrely, “grumbly” or whinny about 15-20 minutes before it’s time to eat. I actually keep snacks in a jar for when this happens and toss some or quietly offer them to students who seem like they are falling into the category of low blood sugar. Emotional meltdowns are a very big sign of hypoglycemia.  I especially see this dip in blood sugar in my students who are more athletic and are probably just burning more calories , on top of growing! I talk to my students about eating and how important it is to have a snack if they start to notice signs of hypoglycemia.  I can tell you that each time I have brought out the food and shared it, the class has gone right back into a more focused, relaxed learning state and the results can be seen within minutes of eating. Try it yourself.

You can help your teen by making sure he or she is eating in the “zone” with balanced levels of protein (30%), healthy fat (30%) and complex carbohydrates (40%) so blood glucose levels stay level and steady. Small snacks throughout the day that have protein and healthy fats are really helpful because if people go more then four hours without some sort of food, they entering the danger zone of going into hypoglycemia. This state also activates the adrenal glands, creating higher levels of stress hormones (cortisol) in the body, leaving a person feeling sick or fatigued later in the day. Having a protein bar on hand or a small bag of nuts and an apple are good quick easy snack options for your son or daughter to have with them at school.

The best way to recognize if you or your teen is entering into hypoglycemic “low blood sugar” states is to watch for those “mumbles, grumbles, and stumbles.” If you notice that either one of you are starting to be more emotional or crabby, or complaining a lot, or having a negative thought pattern, or being more uncoordinated or showing low motivation or even a “glossed over” look in the eyes, it could be a sign of having low blood sugar. The biggest sign of full blown low blood sugar has been with both boys and girls having an emotional meltdown or crying for no reason and being unable to figure out why they are crying. When I give them a snack, right away they perk up and come out of the “trance” they seemed to be in and they are up and running again. So pack those snacks and make those lunch and dinner plans. Make sure both you and your teen start the day with a good balanced breakfast—not just carbs and sugar—get the protein and fat in as well! Oh yeah, and don’t forget to drink water—staying hydrated is also important!

#2 Get Sleep

What more can I say? The average teenager needs 8-10 hours of sleep a night to be fully rested. During the final weeks of school it can be harder to find the hours in the day for sleep. Encouraging your teen to get restful, consistent and routine sleep each night though this period will help their brains and bodies stay healthy, think clearer, retain what they are learning better, and be better able to retrieve the information they have stored. They will also be more balanced emotionally throughout this more stressful time of the year. So will you as their parent! : )

#3 Work in at least three days with 30 minutes or more of Cardiovascular Exercise

Neuroscientist Dr. John Ratey has done multiple studies on how cardiovascular exercise affects learning and memory inside the classroom. Exercise creates many chemicals for the brain that help motivation, focus and alertness which are all key to being a good student, especially around exam time and finals. Exercise also decreases stress hormones and chemicals like cortisol that can interfere with learning and overall health. Cardiovascular exercise isn’t just for working out your physical body but it is good for strengthening your mental abilities as well. Finals time it is not a time to skimp on the exercise—if anything, you may want a little more of it.

#4 Encourage the use of different learning styles to study

Everyone learns and retains information differently. Just because you learn one way doesn’t mean it will definitely be the most helpful way for your son or daughter to learn. Encourage your kids to explore what works for them, what distracts them, what engages them, and how they learn best. There are some online tests for learning styles if you are interested in finding out more. But for now, here are some of the ways to study using different learning styles strengths:

Visual: If your teen is more visual in how he or she learns, it can help to have them draw pictures or images for words or terminology they are trying to learn. Or you can have them try to picture the word in their head. They also may do well with highlighting while they read. Watching films with visual images of what they are studying can be useful as well.

Auditory: If your kid is more auditory, it can help to read out loud, listen to lectures as recordings, watch and listen to short videos on the topics online, get their textbooks on audio so they can hear the information.

Kinesthetic: If your kid is kinesthetic, it can be helpful for them to move while learning. They can stand or walk while listening to books on audio, or sit on a ball where they can bounce while studying,. Also setting up ways to make what they are learning more practical, where they are actually using the info in a real life experience, for example, building a model, can better enable the kinesthetic learner to process and remember the info better.

#5 Use humor to learn and laugh often.

Laughter creates all sorts of good chemicals in your brain. It also relieves stress and pain. By releasing tension and stress, your brain is better able to focus and remember what it is trying to learn or retrieve. Encourage your kids/teens to find humor in things, especially while studying or if they start to become overwhelmed by “taking it all so serious.”  Help them laugh about something. This can teach an important life lesson: making time for fun is important even when we are really busy.

#6 Interests and Activities

If motivation is a problem, try to find ways to make the topics and subjects being studied relate to your kids’/teens’ passions. I spend a lot of time working with kids who have learning disabilities and most of them have a subject that they just don’t like or connect to. I try to figure out what inspires and ignites the passion of each kid I’m working with and then I try my best to make the subject relate to that passion. For example, one boy who hates math really loves basketball. I have added basketball into his math by showing how geometry can relate directly to shooting angles on the backboard. Even though we are doing math, he also has a chance to talk with me about an interest of his. Simply talking about interests can create dopamine and brain chemicals that help with focus and motivation. It is really important during these busy times of the school year to continue to connect to those passions and talents your kids have and use their strengths as a way to overcome some of their weaker or less favorable areas of learning.

#7 Test Taking Skills and Tricks

When taking the tests, I like to encourage my students to take a moment to at the beginning and look through the entire test before getting started to get a feel for how it is laid out: is it “multiple choice” or “fill in the blank” or “essay answer”? I teach my students that you can sometimes find answers inside the questions themselves especially if there are multiple-choice options. So if you can’t remember a word or answer you may find it in the test itself or perhaps something that will remind you of it. I suggest that while taking the test, they go through and answer all the questions they know for sure and then come back to the ones they find more difficult. Your brain will warm up and as you start answering questions you will be able to retrieve more answers than you could the first time through the test. These strategies are only a few of many but can really reduce the stress level during an exam. Add some breathing and doing the 6 steps mentioned before this one, and you and your teen are primed to have a better final few weeks of school.

About the Author

Caroline DeLoreto Caroline DeLoreto, MFT, MA in Education and M.A. in Clinical Psychology, lives happily with her partner Adam in Santa Barbara, CA. She is the author of the children’s book, The Yawn That Went Around the World. She has worked as a Learning Specialist, Life Skills Teacher, and an Outdoor Trip Coordinator at a middle school for the past 14 years. She has worked as a school counselor with kids from pre-school through high school for five years. She has a private therapy practice, specializing in children, teens and parents. Caroline’s main sense of purpose in life is to learn and study what it means to be human: mentally, emotionally, and physically. She is fascinated by people’s facial expressions and the different trance states people go into. She is especially interested in the brain and how it affects everything people do in their daily lives. Two of her favorite phrases are, “Ike: The world is what you think it is” and “Don’t Always Believe What You Think.”

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Peg Browning

Former College Professor, President of a Board of Trustees at a private school (grades 6-9) and parent who knows and understands brain injuries and how fragile YET resilient and strong our bodies can be – that is IF we take care of them. I truly appreciate the expertise and practical suggestions in this solid article. Not only can the suggestions empower parents with doable guidelines, but their teens will gain efficacy in knowing they can balance their responsibilities while not missing out on their much deserved fun celebrating their accomplishments, summer coming (read in NO homework) etc. Coming from a single mom who just celebrated her daughter’s graduation – getting her Masters in Social Work from CSUN, my hat is off to the author of this article for sharing her expertise – and to all the parents and teens out there who are taking these steps into their futures.

Joy Smith

I don’t have a teaching degree, but I am a mother of four and this article gave to me some really important, easy to remember things, such as remembering to pack extra snacks for the kids to take to school, trying to get them to get more sleep (Not an easy task in this world of video games and cell phones!). My favorite point was the one about figuring out how they study best and helping them find a creative way to do that for THEIR study style. I’d never considered that. I shared the article on FB because I know a lot of parents who could benefit from this well written piece of advice!

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