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Testing time

Last week, driven to extremes by their parents pressuring them to study, three teenagers wrote suicide notes to their families and ran away to Goa. Dhamini Ratnam explores the psyche.

education Updated: Feb 19, 2009 21:33 IST
Dhamini Ratnam

Last week, driven to extremes by their parents pressuring them to study, three teenagers wrote suicide notes to their families and ran away to Goa. The three are now safely back in their homes, apologetic and ready to take their exams. But their actions have raised a burning question: Are children today unable to deal with the pressures they face?

Shilpa Sabharwal, who organises Art of Living classes for teenagers certainly feels so. While some may be sceptical about the need for Art of Living for children, Sabharwal feels her courses help children learn how to handle their anxieties.

“Stress occurs when the mind is dwelling in the past or the future. Because of that, children are either filled with regret (wishing they had studied more) or fear (of how they will perform). Either way, the mind’s ability to function is affected. It is important for children to focus on the present, which makes them more receptive to what they study, and also helps them feel more peaceful.”

To help students gather their mind and concentrate on the present, she advises deep breathing exercises like pranayam. This way, she points out, students can learn to control their stress levels and optimise their performance.
Setting tough goals

It’s not always parents who push their children to study hard. Children too set high goals for themselves.

Malvika Nair, who studies at St Anne’s High School, Fort, has been a consistently good student. But the 15-year-old, who is appearing for the SSC Board exams this year, breaks into a sweat when she thinks of the number of days left till the exams. “The countdown has begun. My first exam is on March 6,” she says. She sounds relatively composed, but frets over losing precious study time due to the ongoing practical and oral exams in her school.

Malvika has created a gruelling study schedule for herself. She studies 10-12 hours a day. Her breaks are restricted to an hour at meal times. In the evenings, she takes the occasional stroll, and almost never watches television.

Her mother, a primary school teacher at St Anne’s, Vida Nair, says, “My husband and I don’t push her too much. We want her to do her best. She’s more stressed than us.”

A little anxiety is a good thing
According to psychiatrist Dr Anjali Chhabria a certain amount of anxiety actually helps improve performance, but too much can be lethal. Exams become a trigger for anxieties that plague a child and many of them end up with fevers, upset stomachs and general illnesses. These are often all symptoms of a child’s fear of failure.”

Don’t lose sweat. All you need to do is not focus on the consequences of the Boards. Just concentrate on your study plan and make sure you find ways to de-stress.

For Malvika, comparing notes with her friends helps. “My friend and I decide which chapters we’ll study over phone and compare notes afterwards,” she says.

Role of the parents
“Parents should make time everyday to sit with their child and talk, but constantly asking them to study, or nagging them about the breaks they take only increases the child’s stress levels,” advises Dr Yusuf Matcheswalla, head of the psychiatry department at Masina Hospital. In fact, the parents’ presence during exam time is vital, but what’s more important is for them to gauge their child’s capabilities. “Parents shouldn’t have unrealistic expectations from their children,” he points out.

Adil Matcheswalla, an engineer at the Nuclear Power Corporation, took two weeks off to help his daughter, who is taking the ICSE board exam. “My daughter is not a top scorer, but her prelims scores depressed her. So I decided to stay home and help her with physics and chemistry.” Now, his daughter is more comfortable with these subjects. It also helps that Matcheswalla hasn’t set high benchmarks for her. Nor is he pressing her about which stream she should take up later. This way, he has shifted focus from marks and performance to simply taking the exams and giving them her best shot.

Stay in control
Seena Irani, a Mathematics teacher at St Anne’s High School, strongly advises her SSC students against studying through the night, especially before an exam, as they may blank out. She also advises them to tackle two or three subjects in a day, so their concentration levels don’t dip. “After dinner, students should stick to Maths, which requires application, instead of subjects that require memorising, like History.”

Chhabria says, “Children need to understand that this fear and anxiety often makes them perform well below their potential.”