Managing stress: Expert opinion!

Students can be taught adaptive ways of coping with stress. Yoga and mindfulness can be made a part of the school curriculum while teachers can be made aware of the signs and symptoms of stress so they can identify and refer students experiencing distress to the school counsellor.

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For the last couple of decades, we have been raising the alarm bells at the beginning of every calendar year about the impact of the ensuing examinations. Boards and examining bodies have taken steps from time to time to deal with this issue through modification of question papers, reduction in difficulty levels, preparing model papers and advocacy programs to counsel the learners. Nevertheless, the issue is emerging every academic year. Here, Dr. Alka Saxena, Deputy Director (Health & Wellness), Bells Group of Schools, Gurugram and Trilok Singh Bist, Principal of DPSG Vasundhara, Ghaziabad, share their views on handling stress in school children.

TPS: What do you think are the core issues that really stress the learners during this period?

Dr. Alka: The causes of stress can be external or internal. External factors may include peer pressure, high expectations of relatives, parents and teachers, high university cut-offs etc. Internal factors could be one’s own expectations from self and coping mechanisms for dealing with stress.

Trilok: Issues like constant pressure and trigger by society to perform exceptionally well in the examination, are concerning factors for the stress students go through. The fact that the syllabus includes certain portions that are unnecessary and uninteresting for many adds pressure. I feel a child should have a proper co-curricular curriculum if he or she is not able to cope with the academic pressure. Such kids can make a career in the chosen co-curricular activity if they put in serious hard work. One needs a perfect balance between academics and activities to be stress-free.

TPS: Do you really think the typology of the question papers really causes stress? Or is it the unrealistic achievement syndrome that is responsible? If so, how do we handle the situation?

Dr. Alka: I feel stress is not caused by any of these factors. It is our attempt as a society to fit every child into the same mould that leads to stress. Children need to be given more freedom to explore careers in accordance with their abilities, aptitude, interests and personality.

Trilok: It’s evident that the examining bodies consider the thinking capacity of an average student as the main criterion while setting the question papers. What really affects the student is the unrealistic and unattainable score goals set by the society and their parents. The parents must be given proper counselling on handling the stress of the children and not be part of it. It is good to dream big to achieve big but dreams must be realistic for the child as well as the parents. I have come across the parental verdict where the child is hardly passing in Maths and Science but parents want the child to be an engineer in the future. In this bargain, the child completely breaks down before grade 12th. Then, there is no way to bring back the child’s confidence who could have done extremely good in Humanities Stream. Yes, the parental pressure is huge on today’s children.

TPS: Do you think schools systematically develop stress in the learners to ensure higher levels of achievement and thus brand themselves as schools pursuing excellence?

Dr. Alka: I feel most schools are working towards holistic development of children and not focusing on just one aspect.

Trilok: It is no secret that education has become more of a business today. Various educational institutions constantly advertise themselves on the basis of the number of students who give outstanding performance each year. I feel that the students have been made the guinea pigs; fostering the educational institute’s aspirations of getting more admissions. The main concern, today, is not to make the concepts clearer but to get a good result, even if it takes failing the ones who have calibre in co-curricular activities.

TPS: Though it is argued that a bit of stress is good enough to accelerate the performance and improve the outcomes in an examination, where do we draw the line between the positive stress and the negative stress?

Dr. Alka: Stress can be a positive driver also. A certain degree of positive stress, termed ‘Eustress’ may enhance performance. This term was coined by an endocrinologist, Hans Selye and the model was further worked upon by Richard Lazarus. Eustress is the positive, healthy response to stress and gives a sense of fulfilment.On the other hand, when a person feels unable to cope or perform in a situation, it is termed Negative stress or ‘Distress.’It is difficult to say where to draw the line as individuals differ in their response to stress.

Trilok: Every coin has two sides. So does stress. Till the time examination stress motivates one to study harder, it is positive and has the potential to yield better in the result. A right amount of stress is a must in any work we do to ensure the smoothness of the work. However, if stress leads to the students being forgetful of what they have already learned and revised, it would only have ill effects. The exam pressure by the parents, relatives and teachers has often led to incidents of suicides among the students. We need to prepare emotionally stable future citizens rather than a crowd of high scoring students who break at one stroke of adversity.

TPS: It is said that in many schools counseling is taken as a fire-fighting exercise in selective cases and is not really in-built into the school life systems? What do you think should be done to remedy this situation?

Dr. Alka: I feel schools can have regular sessions for all students on dealing with examination stress, study skills, and goal setting. Life skills education could be made a part of the curriculum and be integrated with it. Students can be taught adaptive ways of coping with stress. Yoga and mindfulness can also be made a part of the school curriculum. In addition to that, teachers can be made aware of the signs and symptoms of stress so they can identify and refer students experiencing distress to the school counselor.

Trilok: Counselling, in most cases, is not in-built into the school life system and is only provided in selective cases like awareness about teenage issues, or providing career counselling. However, there must be a lecture for life skills or moral science taken by professional counsellors. A full-time counsellor in school who can deal with the case based stress is a fruitful remedy. These can ensure that the students will be stress-free much before they reach the breaking point.

Dr. Alka Saxena is the Deputy Director (Health and Wellness), Blue Bells Group of Schools. An MBBS from the prestigious Lady Hardinge Medical College, she is an insightful learner and an avid advocate of socioemotional wellbeing of children. She is a Life Skills Education and Adolescence Education Trainer and a Parenting coach. She trained with CBSE and National Institute of Public Cooperation and Child Development. She has behind her 25 years experience of working in Health and Wellness sector and educational institutions. She has worked as a Resource Person with Expressions India (CBSE Empanelled Agency) and Macmillan publishers and is working with CBSE, Times of India NIE and NGOs AACCI (Association of Adolescent and Child Care in India) and Mittika.

Trilok Singh Bist is an educationist par excellence who has almost 29 plus years experience in the field of education and had headed Doon International School Palia for almost four years besides being a teacher there for 3 years in 1990, and worked at Unison World School Dehradun as Dean for two years and worked with Jodhamal Public School Jammu as the Principal for last 7 years. Presently, he is Principal at DPSG Vasundhara. He believes in experiential learning that is learning by doing and has a typical sustainable leadership style where he takes his team along in all his educational initiatives. Bist is the National CBSE Awardee for 2016 besides being awarded for his Meritorious Services by National Award Authority India for his contribution to IAYP.