Academic Pressure in Children, Young People and Their Families: Expectations Vs Results - How Do We Cope?

02/05/2016 20:41

Such a topical topic as GCSE fever hits our nation! Today's world is increasingly competitive and unforgiving. There is tremendous pressure on children, young people and their families to ensure better exam results and academic outcomes. Understandably, parents, educators and politicians consider this topic high priority. Multiple exam preparatory businesses are found just round the corner and online. Parents are willing to invest huge amounts of money to further their child's education.

Increasing external pressure from competitive peers and higher thresholds of parental and societal expectations are realities in today's fast-paced world. Some children may flourish in an increasingly selective, academic result-based educational system but emotionally fragile children who struggle to handle stress will flounder.

How can we identify exam stress early?

An unwanted and unexpected by-product could be childhood/teenage stress and anxiety. Signs of anxiety from too much pressure to perform well on the day may lead to sleep disturbances, erratic/poor eating, low mood, excessive worrying, low confidence levels, frustration, anger and fear of failure - a sure-fire recipe for premature burnout. This can create a fertile ground for mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, eating and sleep disorders.

Anxiety and stress may show up as queasy tummies, headaches and flaring up of skin conditions like rashes and eczema amongst other illnesses.

Younger children may experience nightmares or exhibit difficult behaviours. They can refuse to attend school. Struggling to concentrate in lessons / whilst preparing for their exams, loss of interest in their day-to-day activities and hobbies can lead to gradually withdrawal and social isolation.

Many others around the child (Parents, carers , siblings and involved family members) understandably experience significant stress in the lead-up to the exams and after. Tensions and emotions may run high in the household. These days, accessible (But not always suitable) peer support or social media are increasingly replacing parental support . A vicious cycle of peer and family pressures, feeling unsupported / not being understood may lead to perceived isolation, poor self-worth, diminished self-confidence . The consequences can include high-risk issues like online targeting or drug / alcohol misuse.

Education should lead us from darkness to light. However, high and unrealistic expectations from parents and schools can affect a child's overall development. A parent's role supports or facilitates the child's achievements but high expectations can create unnecessary pressure - this can foster stress and performance anxiety in children. Every child has a different potential and ability to manage stress.

The school and college admissions process has become more difficult than ever before. Competition is fierce. Many apply to a handful of good institutions hoping to get a much-wanted place. The stress does not stop after the exams - the wait for a decision is excruciating. Only a small proportion of eligible candidates succeed.

Rejection can feel devastating. Highly capable and hard-working young people, who spend many hours studying and preparing for assignments and exams, find the whole experience stressful, undermining and frustrating. The developing brain starts to become unsure and lose confidence in its own abilities- a recognized trigger for serious mental and emotional health difficulties and illnesses.

How do we manage exam stress?

Every young person is different temperamentally and ability-wise. Early identification of (and a focus on) their abilities and strengths, coupled with an understanding of their innate temperament is key to setting realistic goals and expectations. Understanding the child's strengths and interests but accepting the child's limitations at the same time is important. Close and ongoing liaison with schools and other parents can help parents recognize the strengths and difficulties of their child.

The key is to start as early as possible to foster a supportive learning environment , where learning becomes a joy and not a chore. Learning can be enhanced and supported by daily conversations, practical tasks and a secure, consistent environment where the child can question and be curious.

Children may perform better at school and feel more confident about themselves if they are told that failure is a normal part of learning, rather than being pressured to succeed at all costs, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association (2012).

Recognising this key concept and intervening early is vital. Parents and teachers need to communicate better with each other and the child. Supporting the child's efforts and self-esteem is the surest way to motivate them in a healthy manner. A simple conversation at the end of the day about how things are going and giving positive feedback on the child's efforts go a long way.

Being sensitive to a child's age and stage of emotional and physical development is also important. Approaching a hormonal adolescent is a very different ball-game to interacting with a child, as any parent will attest to.

Around the exam period, planning ahead, preparedness and manageable task lists can go a long way in alleviating stress. Organisation, emotional /stress management and communication at times of stress are pre-patterned in families and may require open discussions within the family, with clearly agreed communication and action points before the exam period starts. Simple practical considerations like Katie being aware mom will drive her to school on time for her exams, Tom's access to a quiet space should he require it and Lucy's prepared visual plan on the fridge help them significantly.

Creative outlets like music and art play a significant and often underestimated role in supporting relaxation, emotional processing and stress management at times of stress and in the longer-term. Neuro-scientific reviews on emotion, the mind, brain, music and self-guided, well-evidenced therapeutic techniques published and presented by the author highlight the role and usefulness of the creative arts in emotional self-management at times of stress like exams (Both in healthy individuals and in those with mental/ physical/ developmental health conditions).

Children with special needs or developmental conditions like ADHD may require access to a quiet space or extra time during their exams. These conversations and agreements can be finalized ahead of time, in discussion with the school, GP or mental health professional. Children with mobility or co-ordination issues can be supported to optimize their performance with a bit of forward planning with school, education and healthcare.

Where degrees and educational attainments are seen as the passport to financial success, aiming to educate minds and supporting children's emotional, psychological, social and spiritual growth potential will go a long way in their immediate and future lives.

Ramya is running a solo art exhibition and a community Art Mosaic project (16-20 May 2016) and launching her novel music-based therapeutic technique CAPE (19th May) during this year's Mental Health Week. Details of the events are on