Taking the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) has always been one of the biggest milestones of a student's life — and possibly one of the most stress-inducing.
According to Senior School Counsellor Heng Hung Yong, academic anxiety ranks as one of the most common problems that students see him for, especially during exam periods.
As a school counsellor at Angsana Primary School, Heng plays an essential role in caring for students' mental well-being, especially during important transitional moments like examination periods.
He does this by equipping students with self-management tools like relaxing breathing techniques, and teaching them how to identify their feelings and manage their emotions. During the PSLE examination period, Heng prepares slides with motivational quotes and soft music so that students will be relaxed before their papers.
Heng, who has a Masters in Counselling with a specialisation in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, talks to us about the different types of stress that students face today, how they're different from the stress that he used to face in school, as well as stress management tips for students in Singapore.
Q: What kind of stress do students face today?
Lower and middle primary school students are typically referred to me for issues concerning peer relationships, poor self-regulation and anger issues.
For upper primary students, it could be related to managing the unpleasant emotions they are experiencing, negative thinking, self-esteem issues, self-imposed pressure to do well, and cyber issues.
They may also encounter significant life events such as parents losing their jobs, changes in family composition and relationship issues with parents.
Being primary school students, they have limited capacity for self-regulation and are quite susceptible to peer pressure. They are at some risk as they navigate and experiment with social media.
Q: How are present-day stresses different from the stresses that you used to face in school?
"I think one of the more obvious significant changes from when I was a student myself to the situation right now for students is how widespread the Internet and digital devices have become.
On the one hand, you have greater access to all sorts of resources that could facilitate learning, and you’re able to reach out for help with just a click of a button.
On the other hand, we have the negative consequences of being too distracted by things like social media. One example is students feeling discouraged by negative comments on social media.
On the academic front, in the past, there was more rote learning whereas nowadays, we are focusing more on the application of knowledge."
Q: When you were a student, what was your biggest source of stress? Is that a common cause of stress today?
When I was a student, I had test anxiety.
I would show signs of stress and anxiety around exam time, at times suffering sleeplessness and very often stomach problems. I often worried that I might fail and be retained even though my parents did not place undue stress or expectations on me.
Test anxiety remains a common cause of stress today.
Examination and grades are important to students due to the belief that doing well in school equates to doing well in life. Many students and their parents, driven by this belief, place utmost emphasis on academic achievements.
High levels of worry can lead to test anxiety if left unchecked. This may in turn affect students' academic performance and lead to other forms of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
However, I do acknowledge that some policy changes have been made to reduce the overemphasis of academic excellence to buffer the stress students may face.
Q: What are the symptoms of stress?
Stress can have physical effects on our bodies and well-being. Common physical symptoms of stress in children include:"
- Fatigue or lethargy
- Aches and pains like headaches and stomachaches
- Sleep disturbance, frequent nightmares
- Changes in appetite or weight
Stress has a profound effect on our mental state and abilities, and as a result, children can see a decrease in performance at school, in activities, and in other areas of their life.
Behavioural and emotional symptoms of stress are not always easy to identify, so parents should be keeping a careful eye on their children immediately after any other big changes in their life. Common emotional and behavioural symptoms of stress in children include:
- Loss of interest in activities
- Social withdrawal
- Temper tantrum
- Challenging authority
- Acting out
- Depressed mood
- Inability to relax or calm down
- Trouble controlling their emotions
- Guilt, worry, anxiety
Q: What are some harmful effects of unrelieved stress that you have encountered as a school counsellor?
"Exposure or repeated exposure to high stress can lead to an impairment of cognitive functions (e.g. reasoning, problem-solving). As a result, there is increased attention to negative thoughts (worries and stress). This can lead to the following problems:
- Emotional numbness
- Concentration problems
- Safety concerns
- Negative outlook and self-perception
- Cognitive distortions"
Q: Can you share some of the stress management tips that you give to students?
Stress is part of life. While you can't always control the circumstances surrounding you, you can control how you respond to them.
Here are some techniques to manage your stress responses:
Reduce caffeine and sugar — By reducing consumption of soft drinks, bubble tea (which may contain caffeine and a lot of added sugar), and sugary snacks in your diet, you will feel more relaxed and you will sleep better.
Get enough sleep — Feeling tired will increase your stress because it may cause you to think irrationally.
Use breathing techniques to promote relaxation and calmness — Imagine a birthday candle. Take in a deep breath through the nose and then exhale through the mouth to blow out the candle.
Do any type of physical activity — Physical activity releases endorphins, which serve to alleviate stress. This is one reason why I do not meet my student during their PE sessions — I want them to be able to undergo the physical activity that may boost their endorphin levels.
Use positive thinking and affirmations — My former P6 student who struggled with self-confidence was able to come up with three things he liked about himself, e.g. “I am helpful. I am creative. I am hardworking.”
Avoid last-minute cramming — Draw up a timetable for revision and factor in time for adequate rest and play.
Connecting mind and body — Listen to your body and mind when you feel stressed or worried. Ask yourself, how stress affects your:
- Body (e.g. headache, stomachache)
- Mood (e.g. irritable, lousy mood)
- Thoughts (e.g. negative thoughts, cannot concentrate)
- Behaviour (e.g. restlessness)
When you recognise your own emotions, behaviours, and physical reaction to stress, you can work on ways to reduce it.
During my sessions, I go through with them the following stress management techniques:
- Guided imagery: Simply close your eyes for a minute and walk yourself through a peaceful scene, allowing yourself to feel as though you're really there.
- Progressive muscle relaxation exercise: Relax all the muscles in your body, group by group.
Q: How can students be more aware of their stress triggers?
First and foremost, we should guide students to see that every failure, problem or obstacle brings a learning opportunity to learn more about themselves, to add on to their life experiences. Not everything will go according to plan, not everything will turn out a success.
Ask yourselves, “What have I done wrong or right?” and “How can I cope better?”.
Spend some time navigating through your own emotions and situations so that you might become increasingly more self-aware. Recognising when and why you are anxious or frustrated can help you feel more confident using healthy coping strategies when reconciling these major emotions.
I recall a former student, after a long period of counselling, remarking, “Oh, it’s okay not to be okay.”. That was an amazing moment for me because it came from her heart and showed the realisation she had that could help her through life.
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