Students and the stress they endure #SPM2020

OCTOBER 14 — You could argue that whatever survives a catastrophe will prove its special character. 

The Covid-19 pandemic may have wreaked havoc on certain industries and forced a rethinking of how we live our lives but a few things endured: xenophobia, poor reasoning and over-eating. 

You know what else persists? Exam stress. Not only will the psychological pressure from school assessments last, it’ll probably rise.

Many years ago I was invited to a school to give a talk about stress management to about a hundred SPM students. As is usually the case, the teacher in charge introduced me prior to my talk. 

What shocked me was what she said to the students as part of her preamble. Below is the gist of it:

“All of you need to learn how to manage stress because if you don’t do well in your SPM, you are going to suffer. One of my friends’ sons got only 2As for his SPM and he couldn’t get into a good college after that. Now he’s locked himself into a room; please understand how important the SPM is. If you don’t do well, life will become very difficult for you!”

I was like WTF. Are they facing an exam or a firing squad?

My plan there was to say that they — the students — can manage their stress better by :

  • realising there are many options and approaches to study
  • that nobody cares about SPM the moment they reach adulthood (and probably earlier)
  • that you needn’t be defined by your exam results

Nevertheless, this particular teacher expected me to teach them to "manage exam stress" in order to excel in their studies lest their lives crash and burn, and they become branded as failures. 

It would appear that scoring a thousand As was the only option.

Although the above episode was more than half a decade ago, I’m sure such a narrative continues and continues unquestioned. 

So a pandemic can overhaul the airlines and tourism industry, produce drastic changes all around but here we are still peddling this theory that "excelling in exams" or "scoring straight As" is the Only Normal students must accept and embrace?

Risks hidden or ignored

The epidemic of stressed out and depressed adolescents is a particularly vexing one.

First, it’s rendered more severe by the fact that teens and adolescents are at the age most vulnerable (biologically speaking) to emotional contagion, risk-taking, novelty-seeking and peer pressure. 

Those boys and girls aged between puberty and the right to enter Genting’s casino are the folks most likely to a) feel intense emotional pain and b) do something irreversibly crazy.

With all the existing non-academic pressures within such an age (sexuality, identity, sibling rivalry, sports teams, all added jet fuel by social media nowadays), do we think piling on academic pressure will push them further towards the edge or nearer?

Which brings me to the second vexing thing about depressed Asian students: We parents and teachers tend to acknowledge that stress comes from many sources except exams. As such, we always downplay the ruthlessness and risks of exam pressure.

We complain about burdens and stress at work and we know that pressuring children beyond what they can cope is harmful but we don’t think pressuring them to succeed as academic stalwarts is a bad thing.

We talk about the uniqueness of children and individuals but we don’t question how expecting them to excel in all their subjects contradicts this truth. 

We promote the importance of talent and gifts but in school we neglect subjects like P.E., art, music, dance, etc. as if those subjects are "more for fun" than anything else.

We attend seminars, read books and conduct meetings about financial and organisational "risk management" but very few parents recognise the risks inherent in constantly pushing our teenagers to attain Top Scorer status.

As such, depression (and even suicide) from exams remain a hidden risk as it’s a risk we don’t wish to open our eyes to until our own children are involved.

When Asian communities worship academic grades, this will make 80-90 per cent of students inevitably feel like losers, for the plain reason that academic excellence (like footballing excellence, like writing excellence, like cooking excellence) is the domain of only a few.

The idea of pushing all kids to get straight As is as absurd as pushing all kids to become Ronaldos and Sharapovas.

And we think other nations are kiasu?


Just two for now. 

The most important is to quit denying it. #Mentalhealth is already a publicly recognised issue; it’s surprising why fewer parents and educators appreciate how academic pressure causes it.

Secondly, perhaps the government and schools should focus a bit on strength-based learning. You don’t expect Nicol David to excel in badminton, why should Ahmad or Ah Kow or Anand be pushed to excel in Maths if a) they can clearly excel in other areas and b) Maths is creating more problems than it solves (pun intended)?

By all means, students should be taught to overcome laziness but a line must be drawn between nurturing discipline and expecting the unrealistic.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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