Academic Pressure

CamNews

Academic Pressure

At Camberwell Girls we are committed to a holistic education in preparing our girls for their future.  We are also aware that the work of the future will be markedly different from that of today due to significant disruptors like automation and globalisation.  There are also growing demands for the development of enterprise skills in addition to academic achievement.

Our children regularly feel the pressures of achieving high results in whatever they are doing.  As teachers and parents we want them to be able to do their best, however we must always consider a balanced approach.  Too much stress and pressure will probably result in poor performance and more significantly poor wellbeing for the child.

Beth Sarlos, one of our Counsellors, has written the following piece to provide strategies for working towards promoting positive achievement and wellbeing.

With best wishes,

Debbie Dunwoody

 

Whilst a certain amount of stress may be useful for studying, as it may assist students to work harder – too much can have the complete opposite effect and may lead to ineffective learning. Academic pressure leads to stress, feeling overwhelmed, anxiety, lack of sleep, procrastination and in the end, all of this may affect learning. Even the most academic students may have problems with studying, learning and exam performance.

The topic of anxiety and stress in students is well documented and a constant in the wellbeing and education research literature.

Statistics into the well-being of our nation’s young people are quite concerning.

According to Mission Australia’s 2015 Youth Survey:

> one in sixteen young Australians are currently experiencing depression
> one in six is experiencing an anxiety condition
> suicide is the biggest killer of young people and accounts for more deaths in young people than car accidents
> young people on the whole are most concerned about coping with stress, school or study and body image (in that order)
> a quarter of young Australians say they are unhappy with their lives. In 2013 almost one in four young people (24.3%) said they were sad, very sad or not happy when asked to report how happy they were with their life as a whole

A University of New South Wales (UNSW) research study surveyed Year 12 girls from a range of schools in Sydney and reported that of the 722 students surveyed, 42% reported high levels of anxiety symptoms, high enough to be of clinical concern, 16% of students reported severe levels of anxiety and 37% registered above average levels of stress.

In the same study nearly half said the pressure was self-induced (44%), with other sources including family (35%) and school teachers (21%). The statistics for the more gifted students were much higher. The main causes of pressure identified were workload (50%), expectations to perform (26%) and importance of exams (22%).

Whilst these results are concerning, the UNSW researchers stated it is the impact of the academic pressure that is most concerning. 44% of students described themselves as regularly being irritable, nervous and agitated. When pressure was high, not all coped well – 32% reported an increase in procrastination and 14% became more competitive with friends. As expected, students became more result focused, prioritising the outcome of tests over the process of learning or simply feared failure. The impact of pressure and stress therefore had the effect of altered learning behaviours.

Such research and statistics are giving us evidence that our Year 12’s are certainly stressed and feel pressured however this is not at all confined to VCE years. We are beginning to notice that this level of stress and pressure to succeed runs across many of the year levels and ages. We see girls as young as Years 7 – 9, increasingly worried about performing well in VCE, concerned about ATAR scores years away and feeling pressure to always perform better and to constantly excel.

As parents and schools we are having many useful conversations around safe partying, dealing with drugs and alcohol, bullying, and sex education. It seems conversations around academic pressure and stress have been somewhat lacking. As a School, we are increasingly finding there are many girls dealing with academic pressure to succeed and subsequent stress, this comes from both the girls themselves and from family.

One of the biggest stresses for students it seems is the attention parents place on grades. Well meaning parents in an attempt to motivate, inspire or give a young person what they did not have growing up, are placing their children under a lot of pressure to succeed. On top of a demanding curriculum and homework, they are giving their children extra tutoring, extra homework, expecting high involvement in co-curricular activities, constant good grades and wanting them to excel academically, sometimes the expectations being beyond what the student can achieve. Add social media into the mix and the tendency of adolescents to be online constantly and you have a young person who is bombarded by information overload. They can never take a break or switch off. Life for many young people becomes entirely focused on school work.

How is this pressure affecting children? What we are noticing is that students throughout the year levels are in turn feeling the increased pressure. The result is stress, anxiety, feelings of being overwhelmed, depression, early burnout, and emotional and mental health problems. This of course impacts their capacity to learn effectively.

Some parents it seems are losing touch with what is happening to their child or what their child may be experiencing and going through. Young people are increasingly finding themselves not heard, criticised and made to feel they are just not good enough. There is always a place for motivating a young person to aim high and to achieve their absolute best. However, when does it become too much?

So what can we do and how can we prevent our children from experiencing this level of stress and pressure?

> Teaching young people how to recognise stress and how to manage their stress better via stress reduction techniques such as mindfulness, relaxation and learning how to be calmer and how to achieve calmness. Here at Camberwell Girls, our Pastoral Care Program accompanies the academic expectations we have of the girls. We balance the academic expectations with co-curricular activities that help to create a more well-rounded and robust student. The Positive Education and Mindfulness Program teaches girls to be resilient, how to reduce their stress and how to cope more effectively with pressure in their lives
> Learning how to regulate their emotions more effectively
> Learning more realistic thinking
> Encouraging and teaching better time management skills, study routines and effective planning so that they are not studying late into the night
> Encouraging regular sleep and healthy eating
> Encourage the girls to have a balanced lifestyle, incorporating regular exercise and social times into their week
> Parents can model to their children how to cope with their own stress. Many parents themselves lead a very stressful lifestyle and demonstrate unhealthy coping mechanisms. Young people internalise and learn these messages.
> Parents need to be supportive, motivating and encouraging, without being pushy and pressuring. We can push them to do well but need to understand not go overboard.
> Parents need to be in touch with where their children are emotionally. They need to notice when their children are feeling overwhelmed and feeling under pressure. Sometimes apparent lack of effort or perceived ‘laziness’ may be the result of depression, anxiety, executive functioning problems or organisation problems. It may be that the young person is not lazy, defiant or is not trying. With kids who have organisational problems perhaps parents can help by becoming almost like a personal assistant helping the young person become organised and planning. Alternatively speaking to the teacher or counsellor may also help.
> Avoid using fear, lecturing or punishment. It simply does not work and may create further stress.
> Try to keep the relationship with your child going strong. Often parents best resource is the relationship with the adolescent which helps to assist, contain and help steer but not control. Try not to lecture and talk too much.
> Spend more time having family dinners and outings as part of your family ritual where discussions are not just about school. Sometimes in the push for achievement we are not connecting with our children and they are becoming more isolated from us.
> Focus on effort rather than the outcome. Here at Camberwell Girls we are teaching the girls about growth mindsets rather than fixed mindsets

Stress and pressure is a given in our fast paced, complex and highly competitive global world.  It is understandable parents and schools are reacting and trying to make sure students keep up academically and be ready for a competitive workforce, by ramping up the academic pressure. Unfortunately many kids are collapsing under this pressure and are feeling increasingly stressed, isolated, tired and inadequate. Teaching our young people how to manage stress and being mindful ourselves of the pressure we are placing on them to succeed will go a long way in preventing emotional and mental health problems. Essentially students who are not happy and emotionally OK cannot learn. Happy children in turn, learn more effectively.

As parents and as educators we need to find the right balance between encouraging and motivating students to succeed and bringing out their best, without pushing then so hard that they crack. Juliette Fay in an article recently wrote, “You often hear successful people saying… my parents pushed me to succeed, you don’t often hear, my parents really loved me for who I was and let me decide what I was passionate about.”


Beth Sarlos
School Counsellor
BBSc, BSW, Dip Ed Psych, DipFamTher

 

References:
Fay, J. Parental Pressure: The Fine Line Between Caring…and Caring Too Much.
Mission Australia Youth Survey Report 2015
UNSW Research Summary.   (In) Alliance of Girls Schools Australasia. The curse of Perfectionism. Nov 2015

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