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School is harming mental health of children

Education creates a number of psychological and practical problems for school students

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Twenty-three children in Telangana reportedly killed themselves since the results of the intermediate exams were declared on April 18. There has been much focus on the ‘bungling’ of results by the exam board, but there is a deeper issue: why are so many children stressed and depressed to the point of committing suicide, and to what degree is this influenced by our education system?

To begin with, the purpose of schooling is not just to ensure that children become literate, numerate and well-versed in various sciences and skills. School, ideally, is also a place for children to hone the social and emotional abilities they will need to navigate the complex ‘real world’. In reality, though, school may have a deleterious rather than positive impact on the mental health of students.

Most schools follow a one-size-fits-all model. Right from pre-primary, the same stringent demands are made on children without taking into account that children come from varied backgrounds and are not always able to cope with the cognitive and learning demands made on them. The gap is widened due to lack of an empathetic environment at school and sometimes even at home.

Second, ‘success’ is constructed in a particular way in the education system. Marks and ranks matter above all else, and children are expected to excel at all cost. The result is an extremely competitive environment where the pressure to perform results in stress. It is par for the course to be shamed or given ‘consequences’ for not measuring up.

Third, every school has a culture, a psycho-social environment which may or may not (generally the latter) be conducive for children’s development. Children of similar ages are lumped together and left to deal with groups, with friendships, with rejections from teachers and peers. Depending on a child’s experiences, an atmosphere of acceptance or rejection is created, and internalised. While physical punishment has been banned by law, it is still practised in many schools.

Bullying, including verbal aggression and spreading rumours, is common. Many children are afraid to speak up, but may ruminate over negative thoughts or engage in self-harm. Together with the pressure to perform, school experiences in the Indian context are about fear—fear of teachers and fear of bullies.

We have a rigid education system where the onus of learning is on the child and the family. We have huge commercially run schools with large classrooms and a preoccupation with examination results rather than learning. It is an oppressive system, and children and parents have no choice but to dance to its tune. It is not holistic education, and it puts children at a disadvantage.

Instead, what needs to be understood and incorporated in the education system is that while certain cognitive functions are present in all children, there are individual differences and these widen with age. We also need to pay far more attention to the psychosocial development of the child—their sense of self, their capacity for relating to the larger world, the building of resilience. But achieving socio-emotional regulation and stability takes time, which children rarely have with a constant stream of tasks and little redressal of the issues that come with navigating the outside world so early. It also needs unstructured play, which is essential for the regulation of a child’s social and emotional world.

What they get instead is unbending structure and pressure, which results in psychological energy either turning outwards on others (including in the forms of bullying or non-cooperation) or inwards on the self (in extreme cases self-harm and suicide). Education for a majority of children in India is neither useful nor meaningful. In fact, it likely creates a number of psychological and practical problems. Fortunately, many educationists have called for a more child-centered framework for education. There also exist alternate school systems that prioritise holistic development over logico-mathematical and language-oriented education. The need now is to turn these ‘alternative’ systems into mainstream ones.

Rajani M Konantambigi teaches at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai

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