Psychological Effects on School Children in the Pursuit of Academic Excellence

School education has witnessed renewed interest amongst parent community in 21st Century. The effort and research invested into designing the curriculum of primary classes reflect that amply. With the redefinition, school education started an undercurrent of psychological change in children. The reasons for and implications of which we will try to analyze.




The cultural context of the emphasis on excellence

Generation Z or the Millennials have inherited a globalized digital world, they are born in the era of information and global interdependence. And the era is sustained by knowledge economies which needs bright minds in exceptionally large numbers. This situation gives rise to a culture where excellence becomes the norm and average is marginalized, and this is regardless of which part of the world you live in.

School education scenario in India presents a case of contradiction. Figures show that despite of 97 % enrollment in primary education just 32% reach grade XII or pre-university level. This illustrates the limitation of a developing nation where priorities of the state get misplaced. On the other hand, there are over achievers from premium private schools some of which follow an international curriculum. These children are very likely the future leaders of several different sectors of the economy.

The average lot, which is the largest among all, become supporters in the economy and their role keeps getting shuffled depending upon the discretion of the leaders. One is all too familiar with all engineering streams students converging into software and IT as the leaders drove the economy that way. The trend will surely change and other fields will gain prominence among others. The point is that the incentive of academic brilliance is so phenomenal that it practically becomes the goal of life and that comes with immense mental and psychological investment in academics. We surely get innovators and experts that take the society ahead but there is the flip side, the average students get subjected to complexes and lose their potential to contribute to the society as they think or are made to think that their potentials are irrelevant. The worse scenario turns them against society or themselves. We deduce that there is a strong psychological cultural influence of the current academic scenario on children and parents.

The pressure to excel begins in early childhood education where the pressure of studies and the span of the syllabus grows quite fast. The focus on skill is outweighed by the focus on being a top-notch student. With the advent of IB and Cambridge syllabi, focus on language acquisition has risen and is now being adopted in Indian curriculums schools too. In fact, language acquisition presents an interesting case by itself. Researches conducted by the linguists’ state that the second language, if acquired before the age of 6 loses the effect of mother tongue accent. The adolescents with accented English across India remain conscious of it and the psychological impact of this verbalization complex impacts communication and confidence. Now as we are witnessing that time of learning a foreign language at school level has arrived so has the pressure of learning a third language in school children. Children obviously work harder than their counterparts to acquire these outstanding skills at the expense of ordinary age-appropriate activities.

The psychological shift which such cultural changes entail manifest in direct and implicit ways. The studies have been conducted by several agencies including those sponsored by WHO and UNESCO to assess the psychological impact of academic burden in formative years. The cases of psychological disorders including depression, psychosomatic disorders,  late symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder, Internet addiction, eating disorders, generalized anxiety and social withdrawal. It is not an individual issue and cannot be seen like that, it is a cultural question to be resolved by matching academic requirement with commensurate developments in pedagogy and individualized learning besides the availability of special educators. Academic counseling is indispensable in schools for quite some time now although the majority of schools do not make it available.

It is not new for India that education and academics are a focal point of psychological stress in children. However, the intensity has been on the rise progressively through the years and social recreation opportunities have declined. Parental pressure for academic excellence is also growing steadily. Sociological studies reveal that peer pressure is one of the major stressors for children in North America and other countries but that’s not the case in India where it’s parental pressure. It is also shown by the studies that school children, especially girls, are less stressed by competition than by the parental expectation in school exams.

Psychological repercussions

At some point in this discussion, the grim reminder unavoidably arrives which is that India is among the leaders among countries in adolescent suicide. Statistics show that indebted farmers from areas with poor monsoons were most at risk of self-harm. A 2014 study concludes that educated youth from urban educated families are increasingly prone to suicide. This reflects the absence of the skill of stress management development of which in adolescence should be assisted by schools. If we look at the figures for the year of the same study i.e. 2014, we find that 2,471 students committed suicide in 2013-14 subsequent to the failure in school exams.

It is to be noted that the exams in question were school certificate exams and not competitive exams which again testifies that competition is not as big a stressor as parental pressure for academic excellence. The other factor that aggravates the stress of studies is that the student is forced to study what he or she is not interested in. Among the states, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh are reported to have this problem in higher degrees. It cannot be overemphasized that schools, right from the pre-schooling stage, must take up methods of education that inculcates self-esteem in children and self-discovery. It is the need of the hour to sincerely adopt pedagogical methods like Montessori and Multiple Intelligence to bring about the welcome change.

Curriculums and Child Psychology

A serious limitation of the Indian Education system is the absence of any mechanism to recognize and deal with learning disabilities in school children including dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia. The ICSE board has recently mooted a proposal which recommends consideration for children with proven learning disabilities.  The education boards that Indian schools subscribe to –CBSE, ICSE, IB, IGCSE all have their curriculum designed for all-round development of children. If curricula are put into effect which is possible through better teacher training and school leadership the psychological issues connected with academics can be mitigated.


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In a very positive development, CBSE has recently made sports and physical education imperative so as to bring them at par with academics in schools. It is proven that sports have properties that aid healthy psychological development and social interaction hence are distressing and rejuvenating.

Co-curricular and extra-curricular activities which include dance, music, arts etc. are excellent psychological developmental aids for school children and must be encouraged by the school management. Schools must have the proper facilities and staff to let students pursue these activities which stimulate creativity.

Schools must live up to the claim they make about preparing children for life and equip their teachers to take initiative in counseling parents about the need for balanced childhood development for successful personality development.


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It has been repeated in different words that academic growth of an entire generation or even a class of students is not sustainable if personality development is neglected. The schools must prepare themselves for the individual needs of students and counsel parents on the needs of a healthy state of mind for scholastic performance.

Vinod Kakumanu

Vinod Kakumanu

Founder & Consultant - School Serv

Vinod Kakumanu heads a team of school services professionals and is an independent commentator on Indian school education scenario. Vinod has assisted school promoters establish 35+ schools besides providing ancillary services to over 1000 schools across India. He envisions a future where quality education is made available to every child of the country. The focus he places on the quality of the deliverables and customer satisfaction has made him renowned in the field of K-12 school education.

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