Experts say academics and competitive exams are putting children under undue stress

From home to school - school to tuition class - back home - homework and examinations with some food and sleep in between – many children in the city are caught in this grind.

Recognising the need for all-round development, some parents put their children in as many additional classes as possible – ranging from music and dance to karate and handwriting. Life, for many children, strictly revolves around school and the classes they attend.

T.M. Kothandraman, a parent, feels neither school nor home can replace co-curricular activities. “We initiated my son to drawing seeing his potential. He sometimes goes to these classes reluctantly, but we want him to excel in some field” he says.

Competitive exams begin as early as class I, and parents say they prepare students to face competition and also expose them to concepts beyond those in the textbook. Besides talent search exams conducted by the Science Olympiad Foundation and the Velammal's State Level Science Talent Search Exam, there are tests that seek to bring out the aptitude of a child in class I. The popularity of such tests only seems to be rising. FIITJEE's ‘Little Genie' programme, for instance, had 40 class VI students enrolled in the first year, but this year there are 100.

However, experts say school academics and such competitive exams are robbing children of their childhood. “A majority of schools lay stress on academics – three-year-olds write numbers or the alphabet in cursive. Blame it not just on schools but parents as some of them are so ambitious and want teachers to give homework,” says Prema Daniel, an early childhood educator.

The overemphasis on academic achievement, a rigid approach to extracurricular activities that is often guided by parents' idea of “useful pastimes” and the competitive environment that prevails in the school system not only deny children simple pleasures of childhood, be it fun-filled play time or any exploration without agenda.

Leisure, a myth?

What then is a child's idea of leisure? “School is in the only place where I meet friends. Otherwise, there is no time to play with anybody. There is homework everyday,” says N. Syed Zubear, a class VIII student. The bubbly boy, who goes to a Matriculation school in Purasawalkam, is “very busy” throughout the week.

For S. Durga, a class XI student, from the time she was in class IX, her parents have been telling her to score high in class XII so that she can get an engineering seat.

Parent K. Banu says that playtime of her son Abhishek, a class IX student of DAV Higher Secondary School, Velachery, has come down drastically. But there is little one can do in this competitive world, she says. “If you are aiming for a seat in the IITs, preparation should start at least by class VI,” she says.

All this stress sometimes manifests in physical and mental health issues, say experts. “When they reach Class X, parents start putting pressure on children to make them study harder,” says Ragini Srinivasan, counsellor at Bhavan's Rajaji Vidyashram in Kilpauk.

“Depression, stress and aggression are common among students. As parents become richer and have very active social lives, time spent with the children comes down. The pressure to perform combined with lack of attention can have an adverse effect on children,” says the head of a noted CBSE school.

Health matters

Health issues are not specific to children from affluent families. Those who come from modest families or adverse home environments have far more challenges, for different reasons. “We see that many children going to affluent schools have the problem of obesity, but about 50 per cent children going to Chennai Schools run by the Chennai Corporation do not even have breakfast every morning. About 50 per cent students do not wear footwear,” says P. Kuganantham, City Health Officer, Chennai Corporation.

Depression and aggressive behaviour are not uncommon. “Many of my students' fathers are alcoholics and mothers are helpless. Poverty and such adverse home environments have a negative impact on their self esteem,” explains the head of the Chennai Higher Secondary School.

The civic body has been implementing a comprehensive School Health programme for two decades, which seeks to raise awareness about personal hygiene, and treat minor and major illnesses among children.

“We undertake deworming twice a year for all children. About 30 percent of our girl students had anaemia and we gave them iron tablets.

A few children were found to have rheumatic heart diseases and were referred to bigger hospitals,” he says, pointing to initiatives taken as part of the programme with a budget of Rs. 30 lakh every year. “It is a cost-effective programme that prevents major illnesses,” says Dr. Kuganantham, also a public health expert.

Other ‘distractions'

Student counsellors and parents observe that increasingly, students have exposure to a wide variety of media. “My daughter has been pestering me to allow her to create a Facebook account for two years, but I have told her she can, only after class X,” says Shyamala Kannan, a parent. The television and internet are having a huge impact of children's outlook to life and making them almost as aware as adults.

Don Bosco School students' counsellor A.J.Einstein agrees that many students are getting distracted by social networking or gaming sites. “When they seek help, their queries range from issues like not being allowed to pursue their interests, parental pressure or infatuation with a girl,” he says.

Yes, students do have a host of issues – right from their height not being adequate for their age to being overweight or underweight. Psychiatrist N.Shalini says: “The dilemmas over wearing glasses or not, questions about their body weight, height, complexion all start to happen as children primarily want acceptance and inclusion among their peers.”

(With inputs from Liffy Thomas, Sowmiya Ashok and Meera Srinivasan)