It was a regular February afternoon, when I got a call from a school principal, requesting us to host a workshop on addressing examination stress for her students. That call took me back to February 2007, when I was about to sit for my own 12th standard board exams. That’s the one thing I don’t miss about my school days; just thinking about that time gives me the shivers! So what is it about our education system that creates an aura of stress and anxiety even after the passage of 10 years?
The Indian education system is structured in a way where academic results are the deciding factor for what a child will do in college. It is highly competitive! Owing to the inadequate quality of many educational institutes, the competitive nature of the system starts affecting children as early as when they go into kindergarten. The pressure of always being on top of your game has obviously led to extreme stress, anxiety and depression and led to suicides.
Research shows a high jump in suicide rates in India amongst adolescents. India tops the list of deaths by suicide among all South-East Asian countries: a 40% increase in 2016 since 1990. Globally, suicide was the third leading cause of death for 15-19-year-olds of both sexes, with the number of deaths relatively similar among males and females in this age group. Suicidewas the leading cause of death in India in 2016 for those aged 15-39 years.
Alarming, right? While it’s easy to ask a child to not be stressed, or to decide that you will be a supportive parent, it’s hard to not let the competitive nature of the system get to you. If you speak to a child in distress, you’ll often find out that it’s not just the exams they worry about. They also worry about letting their families down.
So what can we do, to not let examination-induced stress get to us and our families? Can we accept this fear and create an environment that helps our children manage these stressors at home and in school?
Parents, here are some practical tips.
- Make breakfast a wholesome, healthy affair: Make sure your child has a healthy breakfast, as this will regulate his/her blood sugar levels and help them maintain their energy and focus levels through the day. Avoid adding extra sugar to the food, since frequent sugar intake can trigger cortisol levels. Elevated levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, can lead to symptoms like anxiety, headaches, memory and concentration problems and more, which can make exam preparations even more difficult.
- Help them reduce their screen time: No, do not forcibly confiscate their phones, as this will only evoke a rebellious response. Work with them to assign a particular time of the day to check emails, social media, etc. For the rest of the time, while they study, they can keep devices on airplane mode.
- Ensure they get adequate sleep! : Just like phones need recharging, our brains need to be recharged as well. Sleep is extremely important for students’ brains to function at their optimal best.
- Activity time with your children: This can be anything you all like to do as a family—a board game, a quick walk in the park, dancing or singing.
- SMART goals and exam strategy: Work with your child to develop goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. Ask them to develop their own timelines. For e.g., instead of “I will finish my Math syllabus”, they should frame it as “By 8 pm on __date, I need to finish __ number of chapters in Math”. Remember to keep these goals realistic and achievable.
- Journaling: Work with your child to develop this habit. It may be helpful if you do it for yourself as well. It is a human tendency to worry a lot. But very often, we don’t even know what we are worried about! Just the act of writing down one’s thoughts has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety. Ask your child to write down three achievements/strengths, or anything that they are grateful for, every day. This is an activity they can do on their own before going to bed or when they wake up. There’s no right or wrong answer—this is simply a way to practice positive affirmations.
- Check in: Ask your kids how they are feeling and make sure you tell them you’re here for them and they can reach out to you for help anytime. After all, our brains are wired for connection and it’s important for kids to know that they can confide in you.