All of us want better jobs, more money and a better lifestyle for our children. And there’s nothing wrong with being ambitious. However, with more and more children falling prey to mental health issues related to stress and anxiety, we need to pause and question our current parenting styles. The more I coach, the more I see stressed young people.
Especially during exam season.
I find parents taking off from work to keep an eye on their offspring, to ensure they are studying all the time, and children trudging heavy books to various tutors for extra support and burning the proverbial midnight oil. All entertainment activities are slashed so that children can focus completely on the exam that could impact the rest of their lives.
But are exams truly the benchmark of a child’s future success?
And it’s not just children preparing for high school exams that are under pressure, some children as young as seven are subject to ‘exam conditions’ at home.
“We are under stress because at this stage we cannot do much. We feel helpless. The only thing we can ensure is provide the right atmosphere so they can focus,” says Dipika B, whose older son is appearing for board exams and younger one for primary school exams this year. “We have to continuously pull them out from normal routine of playing and entertainment. I feel torn as I cannot do more than support my older child and have to keep disciplining the younger one to stop playing and study more. As parents, we curtail our own activities and socialising so that we can be present for them at this time, in case they need support in understanding something. None of us gets a break during the exam days, and the stress levels in the entire house are high.”
Another parent, Vidya, says even though her daughter is a high achiever, exam time means heightened tension at home. “We have imbibed from our parents that we need to concentrate only on studies and nothing else during exams, and so we do the same with our children. Exam equals stress,” she explains.
One 19-year-old girl, who was a school topper and joined an Ivy League college, tells me that a year into university, she realised she lacked life skills. She couldn’t keep up with the demands of university life in a foreign place. This forced her to take a year-long sabbatical to build some essential coping mechanisms. “I found it very difficult to settle into the new environment. I had no daily support from my parents like I did at home,” she said. “I could not adjust with the other students and found that my social skills were lacking. Because I was stressed about being lonely and unable to be part of a team, I began to lose focus during classes and my grades slipped. At the end of one year I found my confidence at an all-time low and so I quit.”
So you see, her academic performance was definitely not the barometer to judge her survival skills in life after school. As parents, it is important to recognise the innate talent of a child and give him the opportunity to pursue his passion. While it is important to strengthen a child’s academic ability, we also need to focus on personal development, so that they have the perfect platform to launch their dreams.
I am not saying that there is no logic in taking exams. I am not advocating a no-exam schooling system either. The key lies in bringing normality to a ritual that is conducted to assess how well the child has understood what is being taught in school. It should be an opportunity for him or her to learn for himself and for you, as a parent, to provide support, but not make an examination a life or death ordeal for the child. If we push too hard, we stretch the child’s coping mechanisms to breaking point. In 2010, a school health survey by the World Health Organisation and the UAE Ministry of Health found that 12.6 per cent of UAE students had considered attempting suicide one or more times. The survey had taken into account answers by 2,581 students between the ages of 13 and 15.
As parents, we need to keep our expectations realistic, says retired math teacher Uma Rale. Rale has almost 40 years of experience in teaching, 24 years of which she was at The Indian High School Dubai. She devised a method of teaching children math shortcuts that was not taught in schools. But seeing how receptive children were to ‘Speed Math’, she made the school introduce it in each class.
“As a math teacher, I saw children struggling. They lost time trying to work out solutions and as most of the competitive exams are time based, I wanted to help them shorten their working [time], and increase speed and accuracy. Speed Math is based on patterns in math that were used in times before calculators were invented,” says Rale, who conducts workshops in the UAE and India for mothers who help children study at home. She is also the author of Be a Math-E-Magician, which teaches 47 rules to make math easy. “When mothers make mistakes and find some concepts tricky, they automatically empathise with the struggles of the children and have more realistic expectations. It helps solve problems in one step and makes math fun and quick. Plus it can be learnt by children, irrespective of their academic abilities. Thus lowering academic and exam pressure”.
Several stressed children I’ve coached have questioned the point of school. They cite [co-founder of Microsoft] Bill Gates, [Apple co-founder] Steve Jobs and [Facebook founder] Mark Zuckerberg as examples of super successful people who were all school dropouts. But, what we need to remember is that for every Bill Gates, there is a Larry Page and Sergey Brin, co-Founders of Google who are Stanford University alumni; for every Steve Jobs there is a Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, who has double majors from Princeton University. And the list continues with those who were high academic achievers outweighing the ones who dropped out from school.
We cannot undermine the value of academic education and achievements — it is a strong foundation for achievement in life. But what we need to teach our children is that all these exceptional human beings, irrespective of academic qualifications, had a vision far beyond their age and experience. They believed in themselves and were willing to take risks to follow their passion.
We need to focus on inculcating this passion in children and building their visualisation skills so that they understand what’s taught, rather than forcing them to be rote learners who can only regurgitate.
— Sunaina Vohra is a certified Youth and Family Life Coach at Athena Life Coaching in Dubai. For more information log on to athenalifecoaching.com or call 056-1399033.
Parents, here’s how to cope with exam fever:
1. Put exams in perspective. Exams are a mechanism for your child to know what he has understood and what he needs to understand. It is for you to offer him support accordingly. Exams are also a feedback mechanism for the school to know where the child stands.
2. Do not curtail normal fun activities such as sports or music. These will help him relax and unwind, helping him focus better.
3. If you can create a relaxed environment, your child will feel relaxed. If your home is like a jail, he will feel distressed and look for ways to escape.
4. Manage your expectations. What gets you anxious is how your child will fare. Recently, a mother asked me to help her son focus and build better study habits a week before he was to sit for his exams. She wanted straight As from him when actually the child was at best a B-grade student. Hoping for miracles will definitely set you up for disappointment.
—“This is your last chance to do this.”
Do not give ultimatums that your child might misconstrue and take seriously.
— “If you don’t work hard for your exams you will end up being a lowly paid gardener or plumber.”
Do not teach your children that any profession is bad.
— “Look at so and so, he studies 12 hours a day and you are barely putting in five.”
Do not compare. No two children are same.
— “Please do not make the same careless mistakes you did in your previous exam.”
Do not perpetuate carelessness.
Children, remember at exam time:
1. Exams are a part of school life that help you assess what you know and what you need to know better. But they are not a barometer of success and failure in life.
2. The key to writing your exams stress free is revision and reflection. When in doubt regarding a lesson, seek help from classmates, teachers and parents immediately. Don’t leave things to the last minute.
3. Do not compare study habits with your friends. Do what works best for you. If your friend listens to music while learning, it is not necessary that the approach, however cool, will work for you.
4. Staying up late to cram before the exams will not help. When you deprive yourself of sleep, you absorb less and get confused more. Sleep helps you to focus and concentrate both while studying and writing exams.
5. Be active — exercise or play a sport and eat healthy for an active and healthy body. Or practise your musical instrument.