Exam Fever

Every year when exam time comes around, parents and children drop everything to focus on preparing for them. We are obsessed with exam toppers and dream about turning our kids into them.

In a case that made headlines in India recently, a boy in grade 11 allegedly killed a 7-year old child in his school only because he wanted to get the school examinations and parent-teacher meetings postponed.

One can only imagine the fear and desperation of a teenager who would go to such an extent to avoid examinations. Children attempting suicide when they do badly in exams and can’t face their parents is another ghastly trend. Clearly, we are pushing our children too hard when it comes to exams.

I have worked with parents who are always stressing about their kids’ exams. Their anxiety takes over their lives and they start measuring their success and failure as parents according to the marks their kids score.

Come exam time, the whole house turns into a war zone. The child shuttles from one tuition to the next and the parents completely stop going out for social events. Television time, bathroom breaks and sleep cycles are closely monitored to ensure that there is no time wastage.

This pressure from the parents often reflects their own internalised anxiety and need for validation, often rooted in their own childhood experience during exams.

One particular parent I know treats exam preparation as a competition between herself and her child, who is in grade 8. They race to memorise a portion of a chapter and Mom gets so carried away with the competition that when she “wins” against her child, she is proud of “winning” and feels disappointed by her child for having “lost” (I often see the flip of this situation not play out well either when the child wins and the parent feels a sense of disappointment in themselves).

Another parent I work with told me that she had always enjoyed studying as a child and doing well in school exams was a big part of her identity. Her academic career ended after marriage, so she savours every opportunity she gets to go through textbooks and chapters. When she helps her child in grade 9 prepare for his exams, she gets very excited because she gets to study again. She ends up at the center of the story and it is no longer about the child, his needs, his feelings and his abilities.

Children need parents to boost confidence, help develop good emotional health and build value systems over time through modelling.

Obsessing over marks confuses the values of parenting. Exams are a one-time test that can’t be retaken. As we all know, some kids are just better at handling pressure and performing in rote-learning tests than others. In our exam-obsessed society, a child’s marks become a label, which doesn’t go away. Kids as young as nine years old are labeled topper, average or failure based on their marks. We rationalise that this is okay because their marks work as the next natural selection process for college, careers and other opportunities that determine success in life. But that isn’t true. Think back to your school days and to the class toppers. Are they the only ones who have now, decades later, succeeded in life? Are the rest of the kids who were average or struggling to pass exams not successful, not happy, not doing well as adults today? Of course not.

Exams are actually a terrible way of judging the ability of a child. In the Indian education system, there are finite seats in finite colleges and universities, and admission to the top colleges and courses is based on exam results only. That exams play this organisational role in helping schools and colleges fill their classes doesn’t make them good for the students who take them. When our kids are in school, we tell ourselves that they will only study because they know that they have to give exams.

Exams trigger fear or motivation in our children, and we capitalise on this psychological impact to force our children into studying.

The goal of education is to help a child learn values and develop abilities that will enable him/her to be curious as an adult. When we make academic performance and exam results the goal of education, we ruin education. Exams are the goal of schooling, but schooling is not the same as education. We need to realise that exam results don’t tell us anything important about our children, what they are good at, and what they need from us. As parents we want our kids to excel in everything they do, but we need to rethink this approach. Removing exams will restore the purity of education.

As parents, we can’t always control how our child performs in exams but we can certainly model how he or she processes success and failure. Our kids learn many of their values from us, so we need to see exams in the right perspective. As we watch our kids struggle with exam stress, we need to be more compassionate and empathetic. The non-negotiable expectations we have of our kids can make them feel very isolated, afraid and unheard. Parent-teacher meetings after exams can be traumatic for kids who have not met their parents’ expectations. Focusing on the failures of the child and reducing all achievement to his or her marks is a big mistake. The 17 year old murder accused was terrified of the parent-teacher meeting, and this says a lot about the role of parents in contributing to the stress caused by exams.


Special Time

Offer your child time where you follow their lead. The idea behind this time is not to make them compliant but to allow them to build trust and confidence and be in control.

Rita’s daughter was studying for exams, the family was full of over achievers and Rita didn’t feel her daughter applied herself enough to compete with them. Come exam time the expectations go high on how her daughter should conduct herself in her time at home. The daughter was getting 80s but her mum believed she was capable of 90s.

Feeling pressured the child was acting out and grades were slipping. When Rita learned about Special Time, she tried it for 15 mins every day. She made sure there was no exam related talk and Special Time was not used as a reward to escape studying or to demand compliance.

After some initial resistance, Rita remarked her daughter started asking her mom for help instead of her mom following her around and looking for ways to help and manage her exams. She started to take ownership of her learning and being more respectful of the time Rita spent teaching her daugher. Over time Rita was able to see the distinction in her need for success and her daughter’s method for success and this changed the atmosphere at home considerably.

Stay Listening

So many times when we have to get some work accomplished we keep avoiding it because its tedious and sometimes tinged with fear of failure. Stay Listening helps release this fear and helps children approach the problem with new ferocity.

When Riya was faced with a particularly difficult piece on her piano she kept avoiding it. Everytime she needed to sit down to practice, she came up with some issue or another. Her fingers were hurting, she was not understood in the house or even that she was hungry and sleepy. Each time she pushed back against her mom, she met her with empathy. Her mom used words like ‘I know you do not want to, but you have to.’ Over and over again. No explanations were given and no solutions were offered. As her mom kept allowing Riya to push and release, Riya went back to the piece with a new energy. Soon she had released her tensions enough to master the new piece.

This exam season try to let go and instead of focusing on marks and performance, focus on connection and share with us how it has been for you.

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