Educational Pressure and Exam Stress   2 comments

Board and school final exams are around the corner. This is the time to prepare, to think and plan, to help build your own and your child’s immunity to educational pressure and exam stress. We all want our children to be successful and happy, and it is high time we figured out how.

Teenagers, especially in India, go through immense pressure and stress related to their educational pursuits. Each child has his or her own personality, temperament, unique strengths, talents and abilities. While each child may be bright and capable in his or her own way, every child may not be interested in or suited to engaging in purely academic pursuits or becoming an engineer or doctor. Exposure is the key to helping a teenager find his/her areas of interest and once interested the teenager may develop enough discipline and motivation on his/her own to pursue his or her own goals without parents needing to nag! Openly discussing the pros and cons of different career options and ideally having them speak to someone engaged in a career they are interested in, or visiting that person’s workplace, provides a more realistic picture. The idea, therefore, is not to leave teenagers to their own devices. It is important to be actively engaged in helping children discover for themselves their own interests and then making it clear that you expect them to put in their best efforts towards realizing their dreams. There is no substitute for hard work, no matter what field – arts, entertainment, business, medicine, etc. Otherwise, try putting in a square peg in a round hole – it will never fit. There are unfortunately scores of adults and young people who have been badgered into making educational and career choices they were not keen on and are not happy with. Quite a few of these teenagers and adults go through life struggling with low self esteem, anxiety and depression as they do not find what they do satisfying and are unable to put in their best efforts. Everything they try to do is to somebody else’s standard, and that standard can never be satisfied.

In addition, a single minded focus on using academic performance as the only criteria for assessing a child’s worth is extremely damaging to the child and the society at large. There can only be a few “toppers” in a specific area, but there can be several “toppers” in many different areas, such as art, photography, philanthropy, furniture design, landscaping, dramatics, entrepreneurship, sports, etc. When we widen the possibilities of where success may lie, success becomes more possible. There are two problems that need to be addressed: wanting each child to be a “topper” as per set external standards (i.e., exam results); and, pushing each child to be that topper, whether the child is even remotely interested in it or not, and has the ability to do so or not. There are many successful and happy people who have carved out a niche for themselves in an area after having been average students and doing different things until they found that one area which really excited them. We do not have to make the next generation go through the same process and instead help them find their passion earlier in their lives.

Having said that, assume there is a child who is keen on academics and wants to excel in a given exam. Most likely as the exam approaches the child will go though some anxiety. Some anxiety is normal. It is what pushes us to work hard, focus on our goals and not become lazy or distracted. However, the important thing to keep in mind is that anxiety beyond a level is detrimental and affects performance negatively. Each person has a different threshold for anxiety, as for any other emotion. This level is determined by each person’s unique biology or temperament and socialization or learning from childhood. While we cannot change biology, it is the learning part that we can work on. Helping children and teenagers learn how to organize their time and plan, how to break big projects into small parts and tackle one part at a time, is sometimes all that is required.

Anxiety is often related to the unknown or feeling that things are out of control or focusing on outcomes that one fears. While most students who are well prepared usually feel confident and less anxious, sometimes some of these students may undergo intense anxiety if they hold catastrophic beliefs around their results (coming second in an exam is the same as failure), have unrealistic expectations, and their entire self worth is tied to their performance (have to top each exam, else I am not good enough). The same thinking is sometimes at play even with children who are average or below average students either due to a learning disability or due to being ill prepared because they do not have the study skills required or the right educational resources, including good teachers. While universal good education should be a protected right, the reality is far from ideal. In addition, while some children are quite self-driven and competitive by nature, their anxiety also stems from the desire to excel by the standards set by their peers. In this scenario, pressure from parents to excel further adds to the anxiety, pushing it up to unhealthy levels.  In order to prevent children and teenagers from becoming overtly anxious, parents play a very important role by being realistic, and not reinforcing unfortunate beliefs. At the same time, helping children and teenagers build a stronger sense of self worth that is not tied so deeply to performance.

You can help a child who is highly anxious by discussing the worst case scenario so that there is a plan B in place and the unknown is not so scary. Parents can also help teach themselves and children ways to calm themselves, for example, through deep breathing and positive thinking, especially when they begin to feel anxious. And, in general, following age appropriate meditation practices, if possible.

It is important to pay attention and help your child now. Poor self esteem combined with unhelpful, unfortunate beliefs, high levels of anxiety, and pressure from parents or school to perform, is a deadly combination, which can lead to depression and/or extreme frustration and suicide. A life is too high a price to pay for someone else’s definition of success.

Here are links to some websites that give pointers to school and college students for improving study habits and reducing exam stress:


Posted February 9, 2012 by enricheducation in Uncategorized

2 responses to “Educational Pressure and Exam Stress

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  1. An extremely informative write up…

  2. Good this is really helpful post during this exam period and would definitely ask students of my school(
    takshila schools) to read this. Thanks for sharing the links too.

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