How we teach our children: Pressure to excel in exams is a major cause of stress

Pressure to excel in exams and do well in school are the biggest causes of stress among young people.

Exams and school were chosen by 80% and 81% of teenagers as a cause of stress while 72% believed body image issues caused them difficulties.

A ReachOut Ireland/Irish Examiner survey on teen mental health found exams and school appear to worry girls more than boys. Up to 86% of girls saw exams as a difficulty in their lives compared to 72% of boys. Meanwhile, 84% of girls saw school as a difficulty compared to 71% of boys.

ESRI research professor, Dr Emer Smyth, said research has shown that “high expectations, exam-focussed learning, and a fear of making mistakes” all contribute to the pressure being felt by teenagers around exams and school.

How we teach our children: Pressure to excel in exams is a major cause of stress

“A lot of the pressure that the young people put themselves under is internal as they have a realisation that the Leaving Cert is high stakes. We would have found that the pressure is from within them and not so much from parents or teachers.

“Really, it’s a byproduct of an education system that is so exam focussed, a system that is a distortion of what learning should be about”.

ESRI research also found that school, homework, and studying was taking up so much of pupils’ time that they were reducing involvement in sport and other extracurricular activities which are proven to beat stress. “A hot house is created then and that is not good but it does seem to be temporary and within two or three years, the stress is lower,” said Dr Smyth.

The ESRI had suggested a re-assessment of the education system and called for greater supports for teenagers in schools.

In early teens, just 61% of boys and girls said body image was a cause of stress but by mid teens, that figure had risen to 74%. In turn, up to 81% of teenage girls named body image as a source of stress while that figure dropped to 52% amongst teenage boys.

Over two-thirds of teenagers described difficulties with friends as causing them problems while two out of three said difficulties with family troubled them.

Nearly three-quarters of the girls, 76%, cited friends as a cause of stress but this dropped to 55% amongst boys. Nearly half said boy/girl relationships caused them stress.

How we teach our children: Pressure to excel in exams is a major cause of stress

Money, social media, and bullying were also highlighted as causes of strife by the 2,500 teenage boys and girls who took part in the research. Nearly half, or 47%, of the teens cited money as causing difficulties while social media ranked slightly lower, coming in in eighth place in terms of causes of stress.

Money became an increasing source of stress as the teenagers hit 18 and 19.

Up to 43% of the young people described social media as causing them difficulties in their lives but in a later open-ended question on mental health in Ireland, many referred to social media as a problem.

Bullying was cited by over a quarter of students, or 29% as a problem in their lives. College was a cause of stress for 27% of the teenagers but just 31% of the respondents were likely of college going age, ie aged 18 and 19.

Other causes of stress that were independently raised by the teenagers include their own mental and physical health concerns such as depression and long term illness while sport was also noted eg “the pressure to perform day in day out”.

Work, the future and grief following a close death were also listed by respondents.

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