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Before the Boards: How CBSE, schools are preparing to tackle exam stress among students

Chahat Rana
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Students of Government Model Senior Secondary School, Sector 19, watch Pariksha Pe Charcha with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Chandigarh. (Express photo by Kamleshwar Singh)

“Examination are no joke; they can be really fear-inducing. I have always had problems dealing with pre-examination stress, and that eventually led to me having a panic attack during my pre-board exam,” says Tarun, a student from Panchkula. After his episode with the panic attack, Tarun says that all adults around him were unequipped to understand the mental stress he had gone through and unable to calm him down in the moment. “I had to take a few deep breaths like my therapist told me, otherwise my teachers would have just made it worse,” claims the student.

Like Tarun, many other students who are gearing up for the 10th and 12th board exams scheduled to begin in mid-February, are dreading the seemingly gargantuan task of sitting in the examinations. Some of these students have the blessing of a supportive family and an encouraging group of teachers, while others crumble under the pressure of performing well and meeting the unrealistic expectations they or their families have set up for them; a task which becomes even more taxing without institutional aid or a vent to relieve this overwhelming sense of pressure.

Institutional support

“Before examinations, we make sure we conduct at least two lectures, counselling all students on stress management and relief. We also circulate some numbers that they can call if they are worried about a particular subject and need help preparing,” says Sunita Kapoor, a government school principal and head councillor of the government schools in Chandigarh. Most government schools and a few private schools in the city provide counselling to the students through lectures on managing stress and preparing well for their examinations.

Apart from that, the District Education Office has circulated a list containing names of teachers and their contact numbers amongst the student body, which they can use to talk to teachers in order to address their examination queries. “These numbers are of subject teachers that the children can contact in case they have any academics-related queries at any time during the day,” says District Education Officer (DEO) Alka Mehta. Apart from the teachers’ numbers, the list also has the number of Sunita Kapoor, in case the children are in need of some general counselling and advice.

“I answer all the queries that come my way through the phone. If it’s relevant to some other teacher, I refer the kids to them and if it’s addressed to me, I make sure I answer all their queries,” claims Kapoor. Kapoor says she gets almost 10 calls a day now that the exam date is closer. Apart from answering their queries, Kapoor claims she follows up on the students, especially if they appear to be extremely distressed. “I call them again and ask them how they are dealing, and in extreme cases, when we think a child is quite depressed, we refer him or her to a therapist as well. But most of the time we are able to counsel the student and even their parents, before the student takes any drastic step by herself,” claims Kapoor.

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CCPCR sensitising government school principals and teachers on creating a stress-free environment at school. (Express photo)

The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) has also released a circular containing guidelines on the counselling support that should be provided to students before the exams begin. This includes a toll-free number 1800 11 8004, which can be used by students between 8 am and 10 pm to access support and counselling. Tele-counselling by a chosen few experienced and CBSE-affiliated counsellors will also be provided to the students. In addition to this, a list of question-answer columns regarding common queries is to be published in the media so as to allow each and every student to read these queries.

Lastly, the board also circulates self-help videos that students can watch to manage their stress and anxiety during the exams. This audio-visual content which also addresses issues such as depression, drug abuse, learning disabilities and exam anxiety, are available on the CBSE website as well as on online platforms such as YouTube and Facebook.

The role of cousellors

However, some school cousellors, such as Prerna Manchanda, from a private school in the city, say that it is not advisable to indiscriminately share these resources with every child in the school, because each child’s need is different, and each one will respond to this content in varied ways. “These self-help videos might help some people manage their stress, but other children who are more sensitive might start engaging and identifying with the content, and start believing that they have theses disorders, and this might make them even more demotivated during exams,” claims Manchanda.

According to Manchanda, the best way to ensure children’s mental health before and during examinations is to remain sensitive to their needs throughout the year, and monitor them at a more personal level. “We monitor our children and identify those more susceptible to stress and give them what they need, instead of treating them all to the same counselling methods. Furthermore, all teachers are asked to be sensitive towards students, motivate them and take the fear of examinations away from them,” Manchanda claims.

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Prema Manchanda, counsellor at a private school said that monitoring children and identifying those more susceptible to stress is the need of the hour.

The counsellor also states that her school promotes students to resume normalcy in their lives during the examinations by participating in physical activity and taking breaks, so as to push them out of their distressed state of mind. “The point is to make them find ways to enjoy their life while giving these examinations,” adds Manchanda.

In the government schools of the city, 87 counsellors are employed for a total of 114 schools, including primary, middle and high schools. “All the high schools have a dedicated counsellor, but some of the middle or primary schools might have to share one, so most of the schools are largely covered,” claims Alka Mehta (DEO). According to Mehta, no school lacks in terms of access to counselling, as everyone is catered to by some counsellor or the other. “Apart from that, all our teachers are sensitised through training programmes conducted by the Chandigarh Committee for the Protection of Child Rights (CCPCR),” adds Mehta.

Sensitizing teachers and parents

In some peripheral government schools, the need for counselling is even higher, considering the socio-economic hurdles they face in accessing quality education. In a government senior secondary school at Dhanas, the principal says she ensures that the children receive adequate counselling by asking for guest lecturers and counsellors to come in and address the children. “We have more than 2,500 children here, some of them are financially disadvantaged. Many come from abusive families that can hardly make time to support them, so the counsellor that comes in for three days is often not enough, so we make sure our teachers are equipped, sensitised and patient with the children,” claims Ravinder Kaur, the principal.

In another government school at Manimajra, principal Kavita Sharma says that although they do not have a dedicated counsellor, they are making do with the resources they have. “We can’t just sit and complain about not having a counsellor. We need to help our students with whatever resources we have. I personally make sure that all the teachers do their best to keep the children motivated and happy before and during examinations,” claims Sharma. The principal adds that during the examination period, she does not allow for her teachers to criticise or berate the students so as to maintain their self-esteem and instill confidence in them for the upcoming examinations. “Even if they score badly at an internal or practice test before the exam, we don’t scold them at all, rather we tell them they have done more than enough,” adds Sharma.

Apart from counselling the students, Kaur, the principal from Dhanas, says it is even more crucial to counsel the students’ parents. “Absenteeism is a norm here. Sometimes children leave for days at end and the parents don’t seem to care. Or the children’s cause for stress is their parents and their lack of support, so we have to speak to the parents and convince them to support their children, at least allow them to come to school,” claims Kaur.

Manchanda, the private school counsellor, echoes Kaur’s sentiment and states that often parents need to be sensitised more than the children themselves. “We have to talk to parents and not let them put too high expectations on their children, otherwise their children will be in too much stress and not capable of performing to the best of their abilities,” says the counsellor.

“Parents these days are too involved in their children’s lives, it can be suffocating,” says Dr Amita Sharma, whose son is currently in the eleventh grade. “My children perform well but I have never put any pressure on them, nor have I interfered in their studies or sent them to extra tuitions. It’s bizarre how these days’ parents send their children to tuitions in primary school,” claims Sharma. “I detest parents whose only job and concern is their children, I mean let them be! They will be able to figure their life out without your constant interference.”

Natasha Arora, whose daughter is prepping for her 10th board examination in St Anne’s convent school says that she is much more stressed about the examinations than her daughter is. “It is the parents who are worried about examinations and scores. These days you have to score a minimum number of marks to be allowed to choose a particular stream, so I just want to make sure she makes that cut,” says Arora. Her daughter Mihika, however, claims she is taking this examination as seriously as she does any other examination and believes she has enough support from her schools and teachers to perform well in the board exams.

Effect on mental health

“In some case, children are pressurised by their own expectation from themselves, inducing great amounts of anxiety, often clinically diagnosed as well. We have seen that anxious students are more likely the harshest on themselves. So we have to make sure that students with specific mental health conditions are taken care of adequately,” claims Mirchandani.

The students who are diagnosed with a mental health condition such as anxiety, or other disorders and learning disabilities that are covered under the Right to Education Act, are given special provisions such as extra time during an examination so as to provide affirmative action. “A child with anxiety for example is given 15 minutes for each hour of the examination, which means for a three-hour exam, the student gets 45 minutes extra,” adds Manchanda.

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The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) has also released a circular containing guidelines on the counselling support that should be provided to students before the exams begin.

“But the ones who do get this additional support are a very few, because most children with stress, anxiety or depression remain undiagnosed, even when they have severe symptoms,” says Dr Naveen K Goel, head of community medicine at the Government Medical College and Hospital (GMCH) in Sector 32. The doctor supervised a dissertation published in 2017, which showed that more than 70 per cent of the children in class tenth in government schools of Chandigarh had mild to extremely severe forms of depression, and more than 80 per cent of class 10th students had mild to extremely severe forms of anxiety. The results were almost the same for students in class 12th, with one in five students showing symptoms of extreme forms of anxiety.

The study also showed that students from poorer economic backgrounds had higher levels of stress and anxiety as compared to those who come from relatively more privileged backgrounds. “This dissertation had a limited sample of students, concerning itself only with randomly chosen groups in government schools, so this just shows the tip of the iceberg. I believe there will be more children suffering from mental health disorders for years, without getting adequate treatment or support,” says Dr Goel. “Board examinations are yet another stressor for these students.”

Kanha Batra, a former student of Bhavan Vidyalaya in Chandigarh, recalls his days at high school with no fondness. Rather, he recalls the time as an existence in an unhealthy environment that led to extreme forms of stress ultimately leading to him developing an anxiety disorder. “There was a time in 10th grade that I started developing mild anxiety, which manifested in the form of feeling like there is a constriction in my throat. I felt it all the time, up to a period of six months!” says Batra. After some time, he was diagnosed with anxiety and later received adequate treatment for it. “But when I was at school, in eleventh or twelfth grade, where I had no way to deal with my anxiety, it was crippling. Further, it was hard to convince my parents and my teachers that I was going through something real and diagnosable, and not that I am just weak or afraid of exams,” adds Batra.

“The problem is also in the way that we set up our education system, the goal in our mind being marks and getting a well-paid job, when the goal should be the learning in itself. So until we don’t make that change in terms of how we think, children will continue to fear exams and deal with extreme stress,” says Alka Mehta, DEO Chandigarh.