On a treadmill
Sa’adia Reza discusses the psychological affects on students faced with high expectations
Anum’s* schedule can be described rigorous at best. An A-level student at one of the top schools, she’s the star pupil of her class. Both her parents and teachers have high hopes that she will pass her exams with flying colours and secure a seat in an impressive college, and Anum, acutely aware of these expectations doesn’t want to let them down. After school, she attends a number of tuitions, and once she’s home, she once again buries her nose in her books, as she revises the day’s lessons. She faces a constant fear of failing that keeps her on the edge, as she battles stiff competition from her class alone.
Anum’s story will strike a chord with many students who face a similar drill day in and day out. In a world full of competition, youngsters today have to jog the extra mile, not to stay ahead, but simply to retain their position as one of the best. In many cases, they have set goals: graduate with straight As and find a place in a renowned college, perhaps Ivy League, maintain an excellent GPA, and secure an impressive job even before bidding adieu to college life. While all this sounds quite ambitious, it has its own set of problems which go unnoticed.
Psychologists now believe that this attitude and such pressures on students often take their toll. Repercussions vary from attempted suicide, nervous breakdown, cutting oneself, drugs, cheating during exams, and in some cases, running away from studies. Such students’ social skills are also not very well developed.
“On an average, we see two to three cases every week, where students have attempted suicide after failing exams,” says Dr Iqtidar Taufiq, consultant psychiatrist at Liaquat National Hospital, Karachi. Late last month, media reported a suicide case of a student of a primary school. The reason given was that he had flunked his exams and couldn’t face the reality.
According to Dr Taufiq it is the sense of competition, high expectations and consequent insecurities that trigger among students such unhealthy behaviours, and they resort to unfair means to reach to the top. Nabeel* is one such case: a secondary school student, he was facing difficulty in coping with the intensive syllabus. Although quite intelligent otherwise, he was unable to perform well during exams due to fear of failing. His solution to the problem: in order to avoid his parents’ wrath, he cleverly continued to change his marks on the report sheet until he was caught and punished. The aftermath saw a very resentful Nabeel, who was not only angry at his parents, but at the whole system, and eventually gave up towards improving his grades.
Apart from peer and parental pressure, students are also sensitive to the fact that their families are paying through their noses to give them quality education, a fact that’s often hammered into their heads. This burdens them with the added responsibility of performing well, so that they are able to find decent placements and relieve their parents of this load, and the fear of disappointing them intensifies.
So, are the parents wrong in teaching their kids to aim for the stars? Not quite. According to psychologists, it’s not about the expectation itself, but how high the bar is raised. Often parents, and in a few cases teachers, raise the bar so high, that despite desperate attempts students are unable to succeed, and that can be pretty damaging to their psyche and morale. This becomes even more acute when parents continue to compare their children with others, without realising the scale of IQ which differs from student to student, and of course the aptitude for a certain subject. In a system where a fish, a rabbit, a cat and a giraffe are all assessed on who is able to climb a tree, the pressure builds up even more.
“Parents have to realise that their children are not an extension of their wishes,” asserts Dr Taufiq, “Things will improve only when they accept their children as they are, identify their aptitude and encourage them towards making the best of it,” he suggests.
*Names have been changed.