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Photo: Thomas Barwick

I still have Year 12 nightmares. You know those dreams where you walk into an exam and realise you haven’t read the right novel? If you do then clearly, like me, you are scarred for life. Yet compared to the kids leaving school these days we actually had it easy. Last week, when told she had to redo an exam, a young girl had a panic attack so extreme an ambulance was called. I returned to my selective high school recently and was thanked profusely for telling them I stuffed up in year 10 because ‘too many girls are terrified of making mistakes’. An old mate from that school just told me she’s moved her daughter to the Steiner system because she just couldn’t cope with the pressure and competition at the mainstream school. 

I have lots of anecdotal stories of stress in primary school as well. Kids crying during NAPLAN tests, boys being offered Ipads or cash if they win a race, kids doing tutoring from the age of five. Everyone has these stories and I question their usefulness as hard evidence. But, I actually do believe life is getting more competitive and harder for kids. Last week, in NSW 13,930 kids sat through 2.5 hours of testing to try to get one of 4,188 spots in a selective school. In contrast all those years ago, I did a ten minute IQ test and wrote a short story about a pony.   

But what is the pressure and expectations doing to our kids? Is it setting the bar higher so they don’t become the dumb white trash of Asia? Or is it causing them anxiety disorders and depression? The mental health organisation ‘Headspace’ says one in ten young people between the age of 18 and 24 are suffering from anxiety disorder and girls are more at risk. The first symptoms often appear at about the age of eleven but even by the age of six girls are already twice as likely to have experienced an anxiety disorder than boys. A study in western Australia found 35% of kids reported too much stress. 

Author and educator Shelley Davidow believes kids are suffering the effects of our fast paced, competitive and stressful life. She says by saturating them with such pressures we are robbing them of their childhoods. In a new book she argues that in the never-ending quest to give kids the tools and head start they need for success in the global economy we are actually undermining their ability to cope with life. 

But it’s not all our fault. Schools and current education policy make it worse with the imposition of standardized testing (although admittedly parents make it worse by coaching kids for the tests). The Whitlam Institute reviewed NAPLAN literature and found the tests now done in years 3,5,7 and 9 cause significant stress for kids, families and teachers. We copied the testing regime from the US and UK, but Wales and Scotland have actually stopped such testing of kids under 14 because of the pressure it puts upon young psyches. 

Shelley Davidow has taught at schools for many years, in many countries and has watched the affects of testing, exam pressure and stress first hand. She sees a lot of self-criticism and self-flagellation amongst students and believes girls and high achievers are particularly at risk. She became so interested in the affect of stress on children she conducted her Masters in Education into the subject. Together with the American HeartMath Institute she looked at how different environments affected kids’ nervous systems and now hooks her Queensland students up to monitors so they can watch how they can calm their own heart rates with breathing techniques. 

We all know the numbing affect of brain burn out. My partner got so stressed with work life overload last week he couldn’t remember my phone number. But imagine the short circuits that develop in children’s brain when they are over stressed. Without the crutches of alcohol they resort to tantrums and meltdowns or ill health. Davidow says the irony is that by pushing kids too much and being too obsessed with academic excellence we are actually crippling their ability to think clearly. This overloading of young developing minds is contributing to anxiety and depression and damaging their health. 

Shelley new book ‘Raising Stress-Proof Kids’ says that kids learn their stress response from us. It’s in our own interests to keep our stress levels as low as possible and distress when we are having tantrums of our own. And we need to stay consistent - which is always the hard part. Chances are if kids have a lot of stress in primary school they will be chronically stressed out teenagers. There are certainly major signs of anxiety problems causing self-harm and depression in teenagers that is at alarming levels. 

This is why I always ask for the kind compassionate funny teacher at school. Teachers that feed the heart not just head. Shelley says music and art are calming and enriching but all too often cut from schools when funding and time is tight. 

My daughter is in Year 6 and we have her forms for high school on the table. But what the schools don’t tell you in their websites is how they set realistic expectations and how they help kids cope with exam and life pressure. Or how many pushy parents in the pick up zone are living through their child’s achievement. Instead, all talk about their exam results without acknowledging that we are putting too much pressure on one set of tests that are not the be all and end all of life. 

I often feel I’m too slack with my kids. That I should be pushing them more to achieve. But how do we bring up a child that wants to work hard in life but is not driven to distraction by anxiety? It’s a constant juggle to find that space between pushing and permissiveness and it’s a personal juggle. But what is universal is perhaps the need to not impose our stresses and expectations on our child. Nor our own (often illusionary) idea of success. 

The fact that I still have Year 12 English nightmares shows I was slightly traumatised by the final exams. I’d probably implode in the academic pressure cooker of today. Meanwhile, as my daughter approaches high school I need to learn to manage my own stress and set realistic expectations for her. Along with plenty of downtime, playtime and nothing time. 

But I will keep an eye on what novel she studies in Year 12.