“Sir, how to right exam sir,” a student from Thiruvallur district wanted to know. His question was one among over 200 Whatsapp queries The Lede received on the first day of a Tamil Nadu-wide social media campaign to help children deal with exam-related anxiety. Launched by the State’s School Education Department, and helmed by The Lede, the initiative is the first of its kind in the country to help students tide over stress exacerbated by exams.
Students preparing for public exams in class 10 and 12 come under a lot of pressure. They are repeatedly told that the test they are facing can make or break their careers. Students reaching out to The Lede’s social media helplines complain about being stressed, sleepless, suicidal and scared. Most are unable to articulate their anxiety beyond that point. “Students who face the most stress are those who have high expectations of themselves, and from whom parents and teachers expect a lot,” said Dr Lakshmi Vijayakumar, consultant psychiatrist based in Chennai.
In 2015, 1360 persons below the age of 18 committed suicide due to failure in examinations, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. The same year, 8934 suicide victims were students – both college and school. What causes teenagers to take such an extreme step? “Children are not able to handle stress, face failure. Parents pamper and indulge them too much right from the primary level. It goes to the point where they are not able to control them. Teachers are not allowed to shout at or punish the students, and the government does not allow us to detain students if they are not performing well. So when they get to class 10, they are ill equipped to take up such a big exam. They have never faced failure in life, so they are not able to cope with the pressure of that possibility,” said Revathy Bonns, principal, MCC Higher Secondary School, Chennai.
The pressure is all pervasive. Schools face pressure to show a pristine pass record, and this is in turn taken on by teachers who are expected to show results. Parents push their children to do their best, achieve ambitions that they were unable to. The students, in this scenario, feel helpless. A few marks are all it takes to miss a medical seat or endanger an admission into an engineering course. “The boards are a one-point exam with no attention paid to inconsistencies. Grading has to be periodic. What is the difference between a kid who scores 97 and 99? Not much, but that difference decides who will get access to certain colleges and careers, and who will not,” said Dr Lakshmi.
For a wide range of students to be evaluated equally, with no attention paid to their individual abilities or interests, and their choices limited by their performance in a single exam, is a lot of pressure. While they are taught their portions, given revision exams, coaching classes and extra tuitions to take on this exam, there is no mechanism in place to help navigate the stress that accompanies it.
Raghuman Khan, a psychologist who is part of the State government’s mobile counselling program, works in the Thanjavur, Thiruvarur and Nagapattinam districts. “There are about 642 high schools and higher secondary schools in these three districts. In a year, we can maximum cover 150 schools. We don’t have the time and resources to visit all the schools in the area, or deal with individual problems of the students in depth,” he explained.
The problems, he said, differ with the region: “In some places, they have major religious, communal and caste problems – this affects their mindset. Students in villages are not distracted as much by mobiles, pornography or drugs – that happens more in urban and suburban places. Some cannot concentrate on their studies because of family issues – alcoholic fathers, illicit affairs in the family or abuse. They also have other age related infatuations and issues. Teachers will say the student is not studying, but they won’t be able to assess the source and identify the problem.” Additionally, adolescent children experience a lot of change in their behaviour and cognitive thought patterns. “In this situation, lots of teachers are stressed because they are not able to get the student to listen,” he added.
With ample adolescent issues and multiple distractions, the burden of exams seems amplified for many children. They do not always know why so much is expected of them. “Most kids in villages don’t have the exposure to understand the importance of education. They remain aimless and without guidance. So when they are suddenly forced to study strenuously, they sometimes flip and drop out or go on long leave,” explained Raghuman.
S Subaraman, another mobile counsellor who handles the Trichy zone, said, “In government schools, most children are from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Some parents motivate their kids, but do it without knowing how to. They compare him to the boy next door, and ask him to at least get two marks more. This contributes to their stress largely. They feel paralysed thinking about the competition.”
Students writing in to The Lede’s stress relief helplines often ask about important one mark questions and ten mark questions, and want to know how to score the most in each of these. “They ask for ideas from all sources. But when they do that, they are not being focused on what they have to do. They start thinking divergently and getting distracted,” said Subaraman.
There are two types of stress – Eustress (beneficial stress) and distress. “If a rational thought develops in them – where they believe hard work will get results – it becomes eustress. If not, they start looking for short cuts like cheating and other distractions, and get distressed,” explained Subaraman.
Teenagers need problem solving skills and coping skills, which are not taught as part of their syllabi. “We just need to be engaged with them, talk to them and help them deal with their issues. They need to be tuned, and for that, someone needs to take the time to talk to them,” said Subaraman.
But with many students distressed about their exams, there is immediate need to focus on their mental health. “We need to increase visits to schools so that they are introduced to counsellors. We also need to recruit more psychologists and psychiatrists to be involved in this problem,” said M Anbukkarasi, District Educational Officer, Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA). With students increasingly complaining about stress and exam pressure, it is important for the State to do this sooner than later.