By Oindrila Mukherjee
A recent multi-city survey by a prominent healthcare group stated that 70 per cent Indian kids go sleepless before exams with 18 per cent sleeping only for three-five hours daily. While the authenticity of this survey cannot be vouchsafed by this newspaper, what is true is that come exam time, many students begin to have melt downs. A Class 12 boy in the non-medical stream recently called the CBSE helpline in panic stating that he “thought he knew everything” and could not cope with the stress. An alarmed mother of a girl in Class 12 non-medical told the counsellor that her daughter, a topper, was crying for the past 10 days and could not help her child. Across the country at the moment, students are feverishly going through revision notes and meticulously preparing timetables and schedules for a month-long examination that will decide their fate.
The spotlight is larger this year: Class 10 is appearing for the CBSE board examination for the first time since 2009. For Class 12 students, it is only the beginning of another gruelling six months where they will sit for numerous competitive exams and entrance tests, and scan cut-off lists by the dozen to find their rightful place.
They are, however, united in feeling one emotion: exam anxiety or stress. There are many factors that bring about exam-related stress, said counsellors and teachers. One of the major ones, however, is a “flawed concept of competitiveness”. Now, combine this with low self-esteem, fear of the unknown, pressure from the social media and parents, it becomes a dangerous mix.
“There are two types of students: those who are already performing well and those not so much. The first category has toppers competing with toppers, turning into a conflict of capability. Then there are the under-achievers who are lazy and the average student who is nagged by parents,” says Dr Chand Trehan, approved CBSE counsellor, who sits on the national CBSE helpline.
She is one of the 53 counsellors on the helpline who take students’ distress calls in slots. The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) has dedicated a part of its official website for tips to deal with exams and frequently asked questions by students.
According to Dr Trehan, students appearing for boards mostly have two issues. One is about the shortage of time, and the other is all-important: “I know everything, but I will forget it all”.
Interestingly, Dr Trehan said in her 15 years of experience, toppers call more than other students or even worried parents. A local CBSE counsellor, Rakesh Sachdeva, agrees and says, “Toppers are more worried. For example, 10 CGPA was easily achievable. Now, students are calling to say that it seems difficult to get more than 90 per cent.” Parents complicate matters
Counsellors said around 85 per cent calls were by students, but parents were responsible in creating such a stressful atmosphere at home. “Children expect a connection with parents, but they don’t get that. No one empathises with the child; so, in this Catch-22 scenario, the child feels overburdened with guilt to live up to parents’ expectations,” says Dr Trehan. Her advice to parents is to not nag too much. Parents keep complaining that the child is not obeying them.
“Parents do not spend quality time with their kids when they’re studying. They turn up when the child takes a break, and so the child is in an inexplicable conflict where she feels that nobody believes her,” said Sangeeta Bhatia, a CBSE resource person and school counsellor. Bhatia is putting up shorts on Facebook to talk about exam stress. “The parents’ role in their kids’ lives has changed. They scold children for using mobile phones, but they are the ones to provide them the gadget in the first place,” said Sunita Kapoor, senior counsellor of the Chandigarh education department.
She adds that parents also compare their children that they never owned up to. However, this was a matter of dissonance between parent and child, where the parents thrust their expectations on the child.
However, some parents do things differently. Many motivate their children to relax and study. “Everyone has their own way to deal with stress. We went for a movie last week. I only tell my kids that even if you study for two hours, they should be productive,” said Kavita Bansal, a homemaker. Both her children, two daughters, are appearing for the board examination of Classes 10 and 12.
For Mohit of Class 12, GMSSS-38 (W), parents have never put him under too much stress. “My parents keep telling me to stay calm during the exam. I go into panic mode, but they bring me back,” he said. “We cannot say much to students who are already doing well. I am helping my child wherever she’s lagging, based on pre-board results,” says Shweta Attri, the mother of a Class-10 student.
According to counsellors, it was a mixed bag when it came to queries from Classes 10 and 12. They added that mathematics, physics and chemistry were still feared subjects by Class 12. “On the other hand, Class 10 students are mostly calling to ask for guidance in how to finish revising the vast syllabus,” said Dr Trehan. Teachers also said with the CCE gone, the burden had doubled; this whole pressure then passes onto the students.
Bhatia said, “The students of Class 12 are more focused as what they do after this decides their future careers. They are also tense about competitive exams.” She added that Class-10 students were more anxious when it came to direct comparison. Before this, with the CCE, they did not bother about results.
Face your fear
Counsellors suggest practical approach to studies with only 13 days left for the exams to start. They say though it was important to find time away from studies, constructive revision tactics will help students more. Also, as most schools will declare a holiday from February 21, students should look to their teachers to fix conceptual problems at the earliest so that they get down to revision without any fear.
“A teacher could be the most helpful person right now. They can motivate students to give it their best shot and successfully cross the last hurdle before they appear for their first test. Students should use technology to stay in touch with teachers and ask for practice papers on email and WhatsApp,” said Sachdeva.
Fear can only make things worse for students and it was important to run away from the root cause of all exam-related stress. “Kids need to be kids. It’s important to tell children to work hard, but equally important to embrace their mistakes. Parents should help their children face their fear and not run away from,” said Kapoor.
A teacher, Preeti Sharma of Delhi Public School, Sector 40, has a message for students. She says, “Nothing is impossible. If you’ve created a monster, you can destroy it too. It’s all in the head, after all.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, addressed students came soon after the release of his book Exam Warriors. He spoke to students across India on how to take it easy during examinations.
Counsellors welcomed the Prime Minister’s session with students, but say ground realities need a more regular and nuanced interaction by professionals. Modi asked students to treat the examination as a “festival”. Dr Trehan said, “He is a role model for sure. His speech will go a long way in parents empathising with kids, but does our education system let us treat examination as a festival? Taking care of students’ psychological needs should be a regular practice in schools.” Others said the speech may have inspired a few students, but could not be taken literally.
“Children gave mixed reviews to Modi’s speech. It was a new initiative, but students can do yoga or dance only if they have been doing it for a long time. Right now, they only need to feel better and not indulge in new things. So, we suggest walks and light exercises or sports they are interested in,” says Rakesh Sachdeva, a Chandigarh-based counsellor.
However, counsellors say as stress is an issue of mental health, students who are experiencing it would benefit more from expert guidance. Bhatia says, “A little more vision will work wonders. You have to come down to the level of the children to understand them better as all kids have a different attention span. Just talk will not matter; policy makers have to research more.”