Saturday, March 13, 2004

Testing times

Photos by Manoj MahajanIt is examination time again. Students are strained, burdened and panicky. With stress identified as a major killer in the New Age, it becomes important to understand why studies and exams are fostering stress among students. Prerana Trehan reports.

ASTHA, a Class XII student never had problems with her studies. A bright, above-average student, she consistently scored more than 80 per cent. One month ago, or to be precise, a fortnight before her Board exams were due to start, she panicked and told her parents that she couldnít take the exams because she had forgotten everything she had studied. "It was as if she had just frozen," says the counsellor whose help her shocked parents sought. Anxiety, tension and the pressure to better her performance, were more than Aastha could handle and she had cracked under the stress.

If you think Aasthaís case is an isolated one, think again. "Instances of stress among students are becoming more and more widespread. The many students we counsel for stress and anxiety are no longer exceptions," emphasises Dr Prabhjot Malhi, Associate Professor, Child Psychology, PGI, who is running Childline, a 24-hour helpline for children. "Parents of normal kids come and ask us if their children have learning disabilities. The truth is that there is nothing wrong with them. Their inability to function in a normal way stems from stress," says Bharati Kapoor, special educator, ODE, who also conducts workshops with school students on stress management. As more and more students become victims of stress at ever-younger ages, it is perhaps time to sit up and take note of the price they pay when parents, teachers and the society project the teenage super-achiever as a role model for all youngsters, with complete disregard to individual differences and potential.

Adding fuel to fire is the parentsí anxiety about their wardsí performance, a performance that is taken as a pointer to the direction in which the childrenís future is headed. Parents, teachers and the media, all play a role in drilling it into the students that these three weeks of Board exams are all that decide who is going to be a success in life and who isnít. A good performance now, they are told, will be their passport to fame and success, while anything less than the very best can only mean a lifetime of drudgery and regret. Not many parents seem to realise that between the polarities of absolute success and absolute failure there are many degrees of accomplishment that too are worthy goals. Little wonder, then, that stress among students, which is a cause for concern at the best of times, tends to peak during March and April. It was stress that led 17-year-old Sushma, a Chandigarh student, to commit suicide last March because she failed her Class IX exam and depression that caused Nidhi, 15, another city student to end her life in April last.

In a society where success is worshipped and the merit of effort is denied unless it produces tangible results, the pressure to perform is palpable. And as the previously tenuous link between parental prestige and the performance of their progeny becomes more pronounced, the pressure to better that performance is, experts opine, increasing the incidence of stress. "Unrealistic expectations of parents is the major cause of stress and tension among students," says special educator Sharada Rangarajan, running Anugrah Siksha Kendra. A view echoed more or less verbatim by other experts. "In fact, more than the kids, it is the parents who are stressed out, and they pass on the tension to their children," maintains Kapoor. Pressure can result either from the parentsí expectations of good grades or from an unrealistic appraisal of their offspringís potential and aptitude. "My mother says she wonít be able to show her face to anyone if I donít do well in the competitive exams," says a Class XII student who is due to appear for engineering entrance exams after a couple of months.

In addition, parents also tend to pass on their aspirations to their offspring. As a result the students have high, and sometimes unrealistic, expectations from themselves. This internalisation of pressure increases stress. A Class VII boy gets 90 per cent marks but wants 95 per cent because he feels only that score can help him realise his dream of becoming an IAS officer. He experiences anxiety if he doesnít always top his class.

Some experts, however, feel that more than the parentsí hope for a good academic performance, it is a mismatch between the studentsí abilities and the expectations from them that produces stress. Typically this takes the form of forcing them to opt for the traditionally revered medical and non-medical science streams in Classes XI and XII, even if they are more inclined towards, lets say, humanities. "Parents force a student who has no aptitude for a particular subject to study it just because they believe that the only two career options available are engineering or medicine. This causes stress for the student and then because his heart is not in his studies, he doesnít do well, and this leads to more stress. It is a vicious circle," maintains Kapoor. But is it wrong for parents to have expectations? "Not at all," says Malhi, "It is not wrong for parents to have expectations, but these should be developmentally appropriate. Parents should see what the child is capable of achieving and not force him to go beyond the limits of his ability." If after putting in his best effort, a student doesnít do well, he should be excused, opines Rangarajan, "This is what we call successful mediocracy," she says.

In an ever more competitive world, teenagers face the tensions of an adult life much before they have the emotional resources to cope with them. "We have to think about our careers at this stage," says Amrita, a student of Class X. "I am fully prepared for the Board exams and fairly confident about doing well but wondering whether I will get admission in a good school in Class XI and thereafter in a good college makes me tense. And when you want admission in a good college, every point matters. The worst part is that even after studying so hard you are not sure whether you will get a course or college of your choice."

Attempts to keep the teenager away from so-called Ďdistractionsí also causes stress instead of combating it. They are banned from TV-viewing, family outings, games or get-togethers with friends in the all-important years of Class X and XII. A Class-XII boy from Delhi has not accompanied his parents and sister for a vacation in Port Blair because he is busy preparing for competitive exams. "Students are not allowed to participate in extra-curricular activities because parents and teachers are so terrified that they will get distracted. Unfortunately, this increases stress instead of helping grades," says Aradhika Sekhon, co-ordinator, Sri Aurbindo School. Not just the teenagersí but even the parentsí social life is put on hold during the Board-exam years. Well-meaning parents make it their business to hover around the teenager at all times, some even taking leave from their jobs to supervise studies. While some may benefit from the moral support that such constant adult presence promises, others interpret the parents taking leave from work to be home with them as an indication of how important their results are for the parents.

It is also not possible for the students to live in a cocoon, completely untouched by events taking place in their immediate vicinity, and thus devote complete attention to their studies. Whether it is the India-Pakistan cricket series, currently underway in Pakistan, which is being telecast on TV, or the din of the upcoming elections or maybe even a wedding in the family, all these play their part in tempting the students to seek some relief from studies, a cause of much annoyance to the parents, not to mention battles royale at home.

Money, the villain of the piece in every Hindi movie, song and serial, has a none-too-happy role to play here either. The parentsí expectations from their offspring rises in direct proportion to the money they spend on tuitions, while their own responsibility for the academic performance decreases. When offspring are made privy to the income-expenditure statement of the household, they experience a sense of guilt if the amount spent on their studies doesnít prove to be a sound investment proposition.

In all fairness, the media too must accept its share of the blame. "Board exams and the levels of stress among students are given too much coverage in the media. With the result, even those students who are not prone to tension start panicking," says Monica Madan, senior co-ordinator, Hansraj Public School. Agree Mohit Sharma, a Class-X student and Ishani Aggarwal, a Class-XII student, "Board exams are just hyped in the media. But when you come to think of it, these are just another exam." Moreover, says Madan, the media should not report suicides among students as this leads to a chain reaction.

When adults, whether as parents or educators, have already done everything in their power to make adolescence and teenage a potential minefield of hazards, perhaps it is time to look for solutions. Educators stress the importance of adequate preparation. "It is generally students who havenít been regular with their studies and are not properly prepared for the exams, who get stressed out," says Madhu Bahl, Principal, KB, DAV, who has been running a CBSE helpline for students for the past two years. Not only parents, but also teachers should ensure that students are regular with their studies, she says.

The awareness of various career options, too, is necessary, for both students and their parents. "For parents only two career options exist, engineering and medicine. These days there are so many other careers. If parents are more aware about these, they wouldnít pressurise their children to become doctors or engineers," says career counsellor Kanwal Singh. Malhi opines that schools should hold workshops and seminars on various career options. "The importance of vocational tests, too, should not be overlooked as these are indispensable for a realistic appraisal of the studentsí aptitude," says Dr Saroj Saini, Director State Institute of Education. Once the aspirations and the choices of the student are in line with his aptitude, stress is bound to decrease. Experts also feel that extra-curricular activities counters stress.

Above and beyond everything else, it is important to prepare the student to face failure, to deal with it and move on. "Children, adolescents and teenagers have to be told to not only accept failure but also to expect it," says Malhi. It may sound horribly clich`E9d but the truth is that failure is not the end of the road, or a goodbye to dreams, it is a learning experience which can have valuable lessons to teach and moreover, as Saini points out, failure in one area need not mean failure everywhere else.

All this is, of course, easier to say than to do. Homilies are so easy to hand out, so difficult to accept. Even relatively minor issues like how much TV to watch are so difficult to resolve ó there must be many students who claim to be focused on their careers in Classes X and XII who are watching or longing to watch the Indo-Pak cricket series on TV these days. And who can blame them? They are, after all, human and not very experienced and wise humans at that.

On a more serious level, a student who has always aspired to be a top-class engineer is not going to easily accept being, say, a chartered accountant just because a vocational test says he is better suited to that career. Neither are parents who harbour a million dreams for their children going to tamely agree to give up those dreams on the advice of a counsellor. Still, when you consider that stress in a young age tends to linger on in adulthood as well ó stress is a learned response and anxiety-prone youngsters make anxiety-prone adults, points out Malhi ó and that it has assumed near epidemic proportions in the modern world, then maybe you donít need any more reasons to counter it, regardless of how difficult to practice the preaching may be. Quite simply, there is no other option.

Blame game

Experts hold parents responsible for stress among students
Experts hold parents responsible for stress among students

Almost all experts when asked who was responsible for stress among students, were quick to lay the blame at the doorstep of parents. Surprisingly, barring an odd exception, none seemed to think that schools had any role to play. CBSE Regional Officer P.I. Sabu was unequivocal in exonerating the educational system. "It is all due to parental expectations. The educational system, which has a time-honoured tradition in India, has no role to play and neither can it do anything to alleviate stress," he says. Monica Madan also holds the same view, "For three months prior to the exams, the students stay at home and do not come to school. So obviously teachers cannot have much of a role to play." CBSE does Ďadviceí schools to appoint counsellors who can help relieve stress, but it is not mandatory to do so, says Sabu. "The reason why many schools donít have counsellors is that qualified people are unwilling to join schools," he says, "Schools say they donít get any applicants when they advertise for counsellors." And this when, please note, the required qualification for the post of a counsellor is a BA in psychology with a diploma in counselling. Does make you wonder whether it is the pool of qualified counsellors that is deficient or the intention to appoint them. According to Kanwal Singh, "Most schools donít understand the importance of appointing career counsellors. They say they donít need any. Most of the time they make do with part-time counsellors."

To its credit, though, the CBSE has both an online helpline as well as telephonic counselling for students and parents alike.


Success is relative

Counsellors at the PGI fielding distress calls.
Counsellors at the PGI fielding distress calls. ó Photo by Parvesh Chauhan

"We have reduced even our brilliant students to failures," says Dr Prabhjot Malhi. If a student aims at getting 90 per cent marks, then even a score of 89 per cent is regarded as a failure. "This is what is known as a perceived sense of failure." It isnít failure in absolute terms but a relative concept of what constitutes success. Seen in this light, perhaps the suicide in Ambala last year of a Class XII student, who got 80 per cent marks, is more comprehensible if no less tragic. "Even parents come to me and say so what if my child has scored, say, 80 or 85 per cent marks, he has not got admission in any good college." If IITs take just the top two per cent of students, anyone outside of that small percentage is dubbed a failure, regardless of the fact that he may be better than many others. "I explained to a boy who came to me feeling worthless because he didnít make it to IIT that in spite of not getting admission, he was still in the 97 percentile. That meant he was still among the top three per cent of students. He was visibly relieved. He had never seen himself in that light before." Sometimes all it takes to alleviate stress is a change in perspective. Some would say that this is easier said than done, but when you look at the only other alternative, a change in perspective certainly seems the preferable option.

A very important cause of stress among youngsters, according to Malhi, is the fact that they have been left with no leisure time. "We have overbooked the young," says Malhi. Parents donít realise the importance of unstructured leisure time. If at all a student is allowed to participate in games, even these are treated as arenas for competition. So it is not enough for him to play a particular sport for fun, he has to excel in it. Naturally, this fosters stress instead of combating it.

Children resolve many of their conflicts through games, which often include role-playing. But even playtime is supervised and parents decide whether the child should play games or watch TV or listen to music. "Not only do adolescents and teenagers not need constant supervision, but it can actually backfire. Youngsters need time and space to evolve their own identities. Unfortunately, we rarely give them either." Instead we thrust an identity on them. "This is what is called a foreclosure of identity," says Malhi. Later when the individual grows into an awareness of who he is and what he wants, he starts to question the choices he made, or rather the choices that were made on his behalf. And this causes conflict and stress.

"Just let the student be," advises Malhi, "Let him play if he wants, let him watch TV if he likes or just let him sleep if that is, what he thinks, will relax him. Give him time to sit and stare." When a studentís constant companions are alarm clocks, schedulers and planners and when a teenager is expected to be a pro at time management, perhaps some "time to sit and stare" is just what he needs.