Dubai: Exam stress and anxiety amongst students is a perennial problem and often, the challenge is so acute, it leads many students to seek professional help to be able to cope with the most stressful time of the year.
Aisling Prendergast, counselling psychologist at Lighthouse Arabia, has dedicated her career to the use of therapy to benefit her young patients.
Prendergast believes exam stress comes from a mixture of three sources: “pressure young people put on themselves, pressure from school; supposed or otherwise, or perceived pressure from parents.”
She adds that young people today are under more pressure to succeed than ever before and comparisons with others over social media exacerbate the pressures.
Prendergast’s advice to students is to devise a work-rest balance, get adequate sleep and eat a healthy diet that will translate into a positive lifestyle.
She suggests some effective stress-busting techniques:
Prendergast cautions against multi-tasking. “It can result in ‘fragmented thinking’. Attempting to do three, four or five different things at once takes its toll on a young person and their ability to focus on just one thing,” she said.
The psychologist recommends various coping strategies to tackle stress, including a practice known as ‘mindfulness’.
“Focus on one thing in the moment, on purpose, in a compassionate manner - in other words, when your mind starts to jump around to other thoughts, try not to judge this, instead bring your focus gently back to the task that you are purposely setting your attention to,” she advises.
“We will have been more effective in that task as all our attention is focused on it and our minds have quietened as we take control of what thoughts and actions we pay attention to and focus on.”
Mindful awareness, rather than anxious responding, helps a child to positively alter their mind set, she said.
Don’t worry too much about failure
A critical ability that also must be honed is to keep failure in perspective.
Fear of failure is also contributing to rising levels of anxiety amongst young students, she believes and resilience to not doing as well as hoped for is paramount for the wellbeing of children, she said. “We spend so much time focusing on success that we are left not knowing what to do in failure. Failure doesn’t have to be a bad thing and we can learn an awful lot from it,” said Prendergast.
Another tool that Prendergast recommends is communication. “One of the most important tools to teach a child is to communicate their difficulties or anxieties also, this will help them to help themselves and their parents establish a way forward,” she said.
Children turn to their school counsellors or support network within their education system to help direct them.
For instance, the Central Board of Secondary Education, CBSE, is providing psychological counselling for students facing exam stress from February 9 to April 29 in a free global outreach program. The CBSE is the main board organising school exams in India and in Indian schools abroad, including here in Dubai.
Set SMART goals
Prendergast also encourages students to use SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely).“Set the goal too low and we don’t push ourselves, set the bar too high and we set ourselves up for failure because we have an un-achievable target. Think about what you can achieve with your academic ability and work your best towards it,” she said.
“Stress management is a life skill that ripples into other areas of our lives. If we can regulate our stress levels healthily and effectively, then this will have a positive impact on other areas of our lives.”
Imagine a typical teenager returning home after a day at school - sitting in their room, headphones on, distractedly scrolling Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat to make sure they don’t miss a single status update and all the while, they are trying to study for school.
“Many of my students are experiencing anxiety. Attendance tends to drop off coming up to exams, we notice that a lot of kids are unwell around exams. They stay up till 2am and get up at 7am the next morning,” said Julia Watt, a teacher at Dubai International Academy.
Watt, 46, is an Australian expatriate in Dubai and is personally opposed to exams. “I don’t see a point in the amount of stress that it causes for kids. In the real world, if you have a big presentation coming up, you have time to prepare, it isn’t the pressure to regurgitate a lot of information.”
She added that as a very academically driven society, Dubai students receive great pressure to attend university. “We have to lower our expectations on what we expect our children to be, because jobs that are around now may not be around in a few years.”
“Everything comes so quickly, how can we expect them to do an exam, do a university course for three years and then realise that the job they wanted isn’t relevant when they finish,” she said.
Watt also pointed out that a reevaluation of the school system is needed. “I think there has to be a different way. Not necessarily a better way. We have to look at all the children and cater for all children,” she said.
“They are not all the same but we expect them to all sit the same exam. The way one child learns and gives back information is not necessarily the same as another, and that’s where the pressure becomes huge.”
The teacher commented that given the fact that times are changing so quickly, the challenge is to equip the young minds for the new world.
“Education needs to change and be resilient and adaptable for learners and parents and we have to be adaptable as well. We see how the world is changing and the way we were educated is not the same way that that children of are being educated today or should be educated,” said Watt.
Sreekala Sureshkumar, Senior School Counsellor & Head of Wellness at GEMS Modern Academy, believes schools must ensure that students know that exams are not a measure of themselves as a person.
“We have systematically worked at de-linking student achievement from grades and marks. So students have strong self-belief systems and self-confidence arising from their development in non-academic areas,” she said.
The 43-year-old counsellor recommended that educators implement special programs like yoga and mindfulness into the school curriculum so students can learn to manage anxiety.
“A strong well-being programme is essential. Regular inputs must be given to students about health, physical exercise and the importance of being meaningfully engaged with productive leisure habits,” said Sureshkumar.
She also pointed out the responsibility that schools have in being proactive in providing support for students. “At GEMS Modern Academy, there is a very closely knit system where the teachers, middle and senior management and the counsellors of the respective sections are closely involved in the identification and support provided for students who need extra help. Parents have complete freedom to approach us to seek the help they need.”
Sureshkumar encouraged parents and teachers to focus on students developing a love for learning. “This can be achieved by turning learning into an engaging process marked by collaborative activities and developing thinking skills in students. Students should be encouraged to make relevant real-life links with the concepts they study and they should be given opportunity to shape their own learning,” said Sureshkumar.
“When students are allowed to develop their curiosity and are given flexibility in making their learning choices, they will begin to appreciate learning. This must be the true goal of education.”