Michelle ChanEducational Psychologist
It has been more than two months since the start of the new school year. With tests and examinations already under way, students may begin to feel stressed over their studies. In fact, stress has both good and bad sides. A right amount of stress can help us focus and stay alert, thereby enhancing our efficiency and performance. Excessive or chronic stress, however, can be counterproductive. It may cause fatigue, concentration difficulty, a tendency to procrastinate or avoid tasks, or even an upset stomach, a headache and sleep disorders, all of which will take a toll on our performance.
What can teachers and parents do to help children cope with stress and turn it into motivation? Here is some advice.
Appreciate yourself and let go of perfectionism
Some students possess perfectionistic traits. They strive for perfection in everything they do and set unrealistic expectations for themselves, leaving no room for error. These students are generally more prone to mental health problems because mistakes are bound to happen, whether in learning, relationships or everyday life. The pursuit of perfection will inevitably come with stress, and even result in anxiety and depression. Without proper emotion regulation skills, a perfectionist will very often have negative emotions or even feel distressed when encountering failures. Some studies have also shown that perfectionism is more correlated with eating disorders or suicidal behaviours.
We encourage students to learn to embrace their own weaknesses and try to be more accommodating to themselves. If children experience setbacks, teachers and parents should guide them towards accepting their own limitations and help them develop flexible thinking, so that they can nurture a sense of self-appreciation and stop being too harsh on themselves.
Learn to relieve stress and keep yourself in best condition
Learning is like running a marathon. It is a long-distance race rather than a 100-metre sprint. If students are unable to strike a right balance and maintain a good mental state by keeping their stress at a reasonable level, they will likely be subdued by negative emotions that undermine their performance throughout the learning process. Some students would deal with tests and examinations, which usually last for a few days, as if they were running a 100-metre sprint. They would, for example, take an abundance of energy drinks or even burn the midnight oil. Both methods are unhealthy and ineffective because even one night of sleep deprivation can affect one’s concentration, responsiveness and memory. These students are therefore more likely to make mistakes, hindering their learning performance.
How can students keep themselves in the best condition? It is actually quite simple. First and foremost, they should maintain a healthy diet by, for example, eating foods that promote brain health and help reduce stress, such as eggs, nuts, deep-sea fish and bananas. Time management is also important. They should have an organised schedule for work, rest, games, sports and social activities to keep stress at an appropriate level. Teachers and parents can help children boost their mental health to get them prepared for adversity. They can also help children learn about self-care and encourage them to be kind to themselves.
Develop adversity quotient (AQ) to enhance psychological resilience
It is understandable that teachers and parents hope their children to be successful and strive to help them improve their learning performance. That said, as children grow up, they will face different challenges. When they reach adulthood, they will need to deal with a myriad of complex issues such as those related to relationships, daily life and work. It may be an advantage to be academically outstanding, but in times of adversities or setbacks, AQ is the key to surmounting difficulties. People with a high AQ see difficulties as temporary and just a part of life. They believe there is something in adversity that can be controlled and it is up to them to make a difference. Instead of giving up easily, they stay positive and seek to turn crises into opportunities.
AQ can be developed and improved. Through sports, games and team competitions, teachers and parents can foster children’s sportsmanship and give them a chance to experience failures and setbacks, whereby they will learn to handle negative emotions. They may also ask children to take up daily chores such as class duties and housework. By doing so, not only can children become more responsible, but they can also learn to solve problems and bear consequences. With enhanced self-efficacy, they will understand that most of the problems they encounter can be eased as long as they keep trying, attempt different strategies or seek help from others. When children do not perform well, teachers and parents can reassure them that their underperformance is temporary and may be attributed to some controllable factors. For example, if a student did not perform well in a Mathematics examination, we may tell him that “you probably did not have enough time to study or did not study the right way” or “it was simply an occasional setback”. It is inappropriate to say that “you are incompetent in Mathematics” or “you consistently perform poorly”.
Make good use of resources to safeguard children together
Recently, a new designated webpage featuring the experience of 17 schools in promoting mental health under the “Start the New School Year Full of Energy Campaign” (mentalhealth.edb.gov.hk/en/promotion-at-the-universal-level/promotional-resources-for-schools/80.html) has been launched under the Education Bureau (EDB)’s Mental Health@School website. Schools, teachers and parents are encouraged to visit the webpage to gain a better understanding of the practical ways to enhance students’ mental health.
To support students in coping with examination stress, the EDB has consolidated relevant resources from different organisations and produced an e-poster to share evidence-based strategies for combating the stress. They are available on a new designated webpage entitled “Resources for Coping with Exam Stress” (mentalhealth.edb.gov.hk/en/promotion-at-the-universal-level/promotional-resources-for-schools/83.html).
We have also launched the “Breathing Room during Exam Period” (mentalhealth.edb.gov.hk/en/promotion-at-the-universal-level/student-zone/84.html) in collaboration with the Hong Kong Jockey Club under its project “LevelMind@JC”. Students looking for a place to relax and refresh themselves during revision or examination periods may visit the “LevelMind” hubs in various districts. They may also attend stress management workshops to enhance their resilience.
We look forward to a home-school partnership in supporting students to enhance their resilience against stress and their capacity to deal with adversity. If schools or parents notice any signs of stress in students, they should show more care for them and help them find effective ways to look after their mental well-being.
21 November 2022