Overcoming fear of examinations

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By FARIDA RAJ: Unrealistic expectations from society and parents can cause anxiety in children

Anita was having trouble controlling her anger. She looked at her fourteen year old son who stood before her holding the question paper in one hand. The bowed head, stooping shoulders and the sheepish expression on his face said it all. As was the practice of late, he had left many questions unanswered. What made her angry was that even though he was thoroughly prepared and knew all the answers, he did not attempt to write. She had tried everything with him implored him; threatened him of dire consequences if he did not complete his paper, had even promised him an i-pod if he did her bidding but to no avail. Out of sheer desperation she had taken on the responsibility to coach her son for exams. It never occurred to Anita that her obsession with marks and the unrealistic demands she made on him to get 90% marks in every subject, was in fact, limiting his performance during examinations or that he was under tremendous pressure because of her anxiety.

It is most unfortunate that our society gives too much weight-age to the marks obtained and since it is publicly known, the teachers are under great pressure to produce high test scores, and that pressure can be passed on to students making them anxious. Even children in kindergarten are not spared. Earlier, they went to school to learn alphabets, numbers and social skills but today, most are expected to read and write. When students develop an extreme fear of performing poorly on an examination, they experience test or examination related anxiety. It is something that impacts students from all ethnic backgrounds. Such students worry excessively and lack self-confidence. They tend to doubt their academic ability and intellectual competence. Some students may feel the need to answer every question on the test correctly and when they are unable to do so, they may think of themselves as being incompetent and they focus on negative thoughts such as, I know I won't be able to pass this exam.

I know I am not smart enough to write this exam. This brings on a feeling of helplessness leading to depression, and sometimes, even suicide. Test anxiety causes some students to experience physiological reactions such as cold hands, sweaty palms, breathlessness, dry mouth, frequent urination, fatigue, dizziness, headaches or muscle spasm that hinder their writing ability.

Fear of failure

According to educational psychologists, excessive worry and fear of failure make adolescents panic and they experience higher levels of stress. This makes it difficult to concentrate. Test anxiety comes in the way of interpreting and organising information. It is a known fact that some students read the questions on the test paper but fail to comprehend the exact meaning and therefore write wrong answers. Studies have shown that greater level of test anxiety can actually hinder performance on exams. Therefore, reducing test anxiety is the key to improve performance. Another reason for anxiety is not having enough sleep. Today's generation suffers from sleep deprivation due to various reasons. Sleep deficiency can actually make you less sharp mentally which in turn negatively impacts the performance on tests, even if the student spent those missed hours of sleep studying! So, it is very important to get the studying done well in advance and get that quality sleep before the big day.

Anxiety problems can be dealt with effectively. Treatment may include a combination of individual and family therapy, behaviour modification, medication, and consultation with school. Cognitive behaviour therapy is found to be very successful. It aims at correcting faulty ways of perceiving events. An over-anxious adolescent is taught to identify anxiety producing thoughts and replace them with more realistic ones. It helps in reducing over-anxious features including excessive future and past worries, over-concern about competence, self-consciousness and tension. They are taught assertive skills.

Parents need to be alert to the signs of anxiety in their child. They should remember that their own anxiety can be passed on to children. Some parents tend to indulge in techniques such as guilt, emotional blackmail or withdrawal of love and affection. This may interfere with the ability of the child to build a positive self-image. Also, bear in mind that some young people may be quiet, compliant and eager to please, hence, their symptoms may be over-looked.

An early intervention can prevent complications such as failure to reach academic and social potential, loss of friendship and feelings of low self-esteem.

(The writer is an author and Special Educationist)