Is the academic pressure in schools today eating into childhood?

Today I spoke to a friend from school after years. She, too, is a mother now to a feisty six-year-old. She was rather concerned about her daughter’s poor performance, in terms of grades, in school. The poor grades have been de-motivating her, so much so, that she is suddenly very low in self-esteem. On delving deeper, my friend and I arrived at the root cause of the problem. The six-year-old’s class teacher. Because of her poor grades, sometimes naughty ways, and over talkativeness in class the six-year-old has been tagged, mind you, ‘A Bad Girl’.

When I heard that? I was flabbergasted. A bad girl! Really? Why? Just because a six-year-old is being a six-year-old? Am I overreacting? I don’t know. All I know is that someone must intervene immediately before the little girl loses all her confidence, if any is still left.

Incidentally, my friend had called me for ideas on an upcoming fancy dress competition in her daughter’s school. The topic being ‘The changing trends in cartoon characters’. I had to stress my brain all day but couldn’t come up with any ideas. For I was thinking all day, and the think I was thinking was that how will this name tagging affect her when she grows up? And since I was feeling so strongly about this I finally came up with an idea for the fancy dress competition.

I asked my friend to dress her daughter as a pretty princess – she could be anyone Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White and that could be the cartoon/story character from the past. After she introduces the hero of the yesteryears she may bring out a cutout of Dora – the wheatish complexioned, plump girl who is an explorer and the hero of today’s stories/cartoons. The message being obvious you needn’t be a pretty princess to be the hero of a story, you could be just the way you are and yet be a smart, adventurous explorer and a hero. More than anything else, I want the teacher to get the message, grades don’t define children as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. All children are unique and may shine at different points in their lives in an area of their interest.

Tagging children at such a young age has a detrimental effect on their confidence. It may adversely affect their self-esteem and disturb them psychologically. Children who are tagged as ‘bad’, ‘lazy’, ‘shy’, ‘complacent’, ‘lousy’ etc, begin to believe in their tags. And these tags remain with them for life. Such children tend to face trouble in decision-making even when they are adults. Even if a tag is used unintentionally, by a parent or teacher, it leaves an indelible mark on the psychology of a child.

Unfortunately I, as a parent and teacher, have noticed this pressure on children to perform begins to creep in during playschool itself.

A few months ago I was in a crazy dilemma. The new session for play group was about to begin, schools were putting up notices for filling up registration forms, wherever I went young mothers were discussing what schools they had chosen for their children. Amidst all this talk I, a mother of a 2 year old also looking out for a play school for my son, was lost. I had never imagined that zeroing down on a playschool would be such a daunting task. For most parents, I interacted with, the choice depended on the school that prepared their child best for the entrance test for class 1. We didn’t really want to choose between an academic-based or a play-based kindergarten. We were looking for the right balance.

When I was three I was sent to a playschool in the neighbourhood but one day I had come back home crying for my teacher had punished me because my water bottle was leaking. My mother immediately pulled me out of the school and took me to a friend, who happened to have discussed with her an idea of starting her own pre-school, and said, “Here’s your first student. I don’t care if you are getting any more but she will study in your school.”

My memories of play school are only of playing, singing rhymes and running around in the garden. Even if I push myself to imagine myself with text books and homework – I cannot pull out even a single memory.

But sadly today, I find toddlers under constant academic pressure at school and home.

I have often heard parents telling their 2.5-3 year olds to write with their right hands or to hold the pencil properly. At this age, their motor skills are not fully developed. If they are not holding a pencil properly it is not because they are behind, it is because they are getting there and will take sometime.

When painting or scribbling, I often tell parents to let their children use any hand they want to because in the early years quite a few of kids remain ambidextrous, meaning they use both hands equally, until they turn 5. Some children use a dominant hand for eating and writing but the other hand for throwing a ball. Don’t try to change your child’s inborn preference. Forcing a child to use the nondominant hand can create a lot of frustration and hold your child back from exploring.

I was recently going through a five year old’s notebook and she had reversed most of her alphabets. Her B’s faced left, and so did her R’s. Her mother was rather concerned about letter reversing. It took me a whole lot of effort to explain to her that children at this age don’t have spatial consistency. They do not understand that if you change a letter’s direction, it can become an entirely different letter (or not a letter at all). And who can blame them? After all, a glass is still a glass if you turn it upside down. In your child’s eyes, a ‘d’ should still be a ‘d’, whether it faces forward, backward, up, or down.

It really doesn’t matter how beautifully your child is writing when she is five years old, what matters though is that if you turn writing and reading into a drill or chore, your child may wind up feeling pressured. She might take a strong dislike to the very idea of school and that would prove detrimental for the years ahead.

With so much pressure to teach essential literacy and math skills, many kindergarten and play group teachers say that time for free play and exploration is increasingly limited.

Whatever happened to making learning fun? Imaginative play is the catalyst for social, physical, emotional, and moral development in young children. Children need imaginative play to make sense of the world around them.

Research has proven, time and again, that play facilitates the growth of children’s reasoning abilities. Instead of loading children with home work, and nagging them on getting good grades, teachers should encourage fantasy play, open-ended play materials that allow children to imagine countless scenarios. Art, music and stories don’t have to exist solely as separate classes. Educators should work on how they can integrate storytelling in the classroom to learn even math skills.

I want to leave you all with this marvelous poem by Shel Silverstein. It’s making me smile. And oh so much! I wish someday (hopefully soon) I come across a poem where the protagonist wants to go to school on a weekend too!

“I cannot go to school today”
Said little Peggy Ann McKay.
“I have the measles and the mumps,
A gash, a rash and purple bumps.

My mouth is wet, my throat is dry.
I’m going blind in my right eye.
My tonsils are as big as rocks,
I’ve counted sixteen chicken pox.

And there’s one more – that’s seventeen,
And don’t you think my face looks green?
My leg is cut, my eyes are blue,
It might be the instamatic flu.

I cough and sneeze and gasp and choke,
I’m sure that my left leg is broke.
My hip hurts when I move my chin,
My belly button’s caving in.

My back is wrenched, my ankle’s sprained,
My ‘pendix pains each time it rains.
My toes are cold, my toes are numb,

I have a sliver in my thumb.

My neck is stiff, my voice is weak,
I hardly whisper when I speak.
My tongue is filling up my mouth,

I think my hair is falling out.

My elbow’s bent, my spine ain’t straight,
My temperature is one-o-eight.
My brain is shrunk, I cannot hear,

There’s a hole inside my ear.

I have a hangnail, and my heart is …
What? What’s that? What’s that you say?
You say today is ………….. Saturday?

G’bye, I’m going out to play!”
― Shel Silverstein

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Rohini Vij

Rohini is a professional storyteller, educator, listed & certified Jolly Phonics UK trainer, curriculum developer, parenting coach, founder of NutSpace. She is on a mission to raise readers and is actively engaged with curriculum development for schools and her own ed-tech platform - Nutspace Edtech.

4 thoughts on “Is the academic pressure in schools today eating into childhood?”

  1. So I will write again… Unfortunately Rohini this is the sad truth of our present academic system… We, as parents see the competitive world around us and instead of assuring our kids that they are doing great in their respective fields we tend to demand more out of them… As a result the kids feel burdened and forget to enjoy their work which is taken as a chore to be completed or else… This was one of the reasons I didn’t enrol Ishita into a preschool till she turned 3.5 years and still have a laid back attitude towards her studies… Would you believe it her teacher told me that Ishita absorbs what I teach her like a sponge… That she is always so excited to learn something different… I rest my case.

    • Saumya I completely agree with Ishita’s teacher. She is always so eager to learn and is usually the fastest to grasp a new concept. And yes, this means you did something right…you just let her be! Thanks a bunch for leaving this personal experience here – most of the time as parents we are stressing because it comes naturally to us. We begin comparing our child with other children without even realising how it is affecting our child. When it comes to our children , need to not take others seriously and instead believe in the abilities of our child.


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