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Let the SEA be calm!

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The countdown to the SEA (Secondary Entrance Exam) is on! Two more weeks! However, the effects of test anxiety on children in compulsory education is increasing in this country. Every year after the exam, without fail, there are reports of children who had experienced extreme distress during the exam: anxiety and panic attacks, cold sweating, trembling, crying, tense muscles, cognitive confusion and mental shutdown.

Children become seriously ill!

The pressure to perform and the fear of failing is a cocktail mix that explodes when children least expect it—during the SEA exam. A few years ago, one student who had peaked in his mock exams at 97 per cent overall, panicked during the exam and was unable to complete the various modules. In the clinical interview with him, he stated that he felt overwhelmed on the morning of the examination and had begun to feel nauseous and upset. He could not tell his parents as they would be worried.

All of his extended family expected him to pass for his first choice and that entire week, they were calling him and urging him to do his best. He knew that they meant well, but he became anxious and agitated, was unable to sleep well and his worst fears had erupted during the exam— he forgot everything that he had learned. Fortunately for him, his case was reviewed and he was allowed to do an alternative exam and did indeed pass for his first choice! But not every child’s story has such a happy ending.

In some of the pre-SEA exam talks that I have held with students, whilst there are concerns about their academic performance, their major worries are with their parents and teachers who, they report, become more demanding, quarrelsome and never-ending in their requests for them to revise their work, “study, study, study!”, no TV or any recourse to play, which is a necessary outlet and a de-stressor for many students.

The reality is that teachers are under pressure for pupils to perform well in their schools, and parents believe that exam results will influence their child’s future and want them to do well. So they unwittingly transmit this stress to their students and children. After listening to one of my talks on the issue, a colleague revealed that she now understood why her daughter had become rebellious in the months leading up to the SEA exam. She had become rude, disobedient and aggressive. Her mother failed to link the pressure of exams and test anxiety to these behaviours, and had become stricter in her interactions with her.

Ten years later, her daughter still experienced issues with self-esteem and performance anxiety, as a child’s earliest experiences of stress can have lasting effects on later life and adult health.

As parents and teachers, there are strategies that can be put in place at home and in the classroom, to stem the rising tides of anxiety, nervousness and stress.

Children who believe that they can succeed are better at overcoming test anxiety.

Reassure the child that the most important thing is that he/ she tries his/her best.

Create a reasonable balance between study and play.

Try not to introduce new foods or new routines at this time.

Ease up on the quarrelling and nit picking. If your child has not “gotten it” by now, he will hardly jump 10 percentages up.

Let them sleep! The brain needs opportunities to recharge and re-focus.

Be conscious of transmitting feelings of tension and stress.

Display tolerance of “new” disruptive behaviours at this time.

Understand where they may be coming from.

Limit the phone calls from every possible family member and friend. This can increase their anxiety.

Teach them a simple breathing technique. If they experience confusion and panic, let them close their eyes for a moment, breathe in slowly and exhale. It works!

This above all: Calm both the inner and outer storms for them.

Begin with you. This too shall pass.

Dr Margaret Nakhid-Chatoor is a Clinical and Educational Psychologist



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