By | Published On: June 21, 2016 |

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

Many parents want the best for their children but harboring dreams of top universities, followed by lucrative high flying careers.  In order for children to be high achievers they must perform well during their school years which can lead many parents to put pressure on their children to earn perfect grades. Experts warn that intense pressure during school years can affect performance & backfire, leading to signs of social, emotional and physical stress.

Parents can be well-intentioned in wanting their children to do well in school, but they may be heavily influenced by a culture of academic intensity & success.  Results from numerous studies show that when parents push children to achieve, they do rise to meet expectations, but when parents try to push their children on further, possibly past their realistic potential, the effort backfires and children may do worse.

Children can be like a sponge where they are eager to learn when immersed in an environment where learning is fun, creative and encouraging.  They can also be happy to discover and learn; gathering knowledge in a safe and nurturing manner. Socrates said, “education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel”.  These days however, in my opinion, it seems that often the only option chosen by schools is vessel filling.  Children are nurtured less in a caring and progressive manner educationally it seems but instead are often thrown in at the deep end where they may become overwhelmed with the amount they are expected to learn in such a short amount of time.  Yes, children are learning, and yes they often make progress, but do children enjoy learning the same when up against a strict educational diet of exams, & study which is repeated twice every half term for the entire year?  This regime is focused more on spelling, grammar, reading and math’s, combined with extra practice exams, and study clubs fitted in anywhere between morning and bedtime. Some parents it seems can be very involved believing they are being supportive, yet researchers have found that this parenting style may undermine a child’s developing sense of self and confidence.

The question we might be better to ask ourselves as parents is do we really know our children and what ignites their flame?  It seems that whatever sparks their interest is important yet if it isn’t spelling, grammar, reading or math then it could get ignored.  If a dyslexic child flourishes through art, or if a quiet, timid child really comes out of their shell through drama, would we notice enough?  Regimental teaching methods, standardized tests and structured learning emphasize better grades but may not always help developing children with diverse interests and skills.

An article in the Telegraph on the 9th May 2016 revealed that primary school children were left in tears after taking ‘one of the hardest’ tests teachers have ever seen. Formerly called SATS, these exams are taken by pupils in year 6, the last year of primary school.  Around 600,000 children across the country took the tougher new key stage 2 tests, which are designed to measure students’ abilities in reading, writing and math.  Ministers have made the tests more difficult as they look to raise standards, however, it has emerged that many pupils were left in tears after taking exams that some believe were more suitable for 15 year-olds.

Symptoms of stress in young children include sleep deprivation, eating disorders, excessive worrying, self-harming, cheating, burnout, loss of interest in hobbies or withdrawing from friends and family.  Stress and anxiety can manifest physically too.  Anxiety can present differently in children than in adults.  Adults are able to identify and express when they feel anxious, children may instead complain of physical symptoms or say nothing at all.  Children feeling overwhelmed about school performance may experience stomach aches, diarrhoea, headaches and rashes, with younger children suffering nightmares or refusing to go to school.  Worryingly, results from an ATL survey in September 2015 revealed that one in five teaching staff are aware of primary school pupils having attempted suicide, while nearly half of those surveyed said students in their school have self-harmed due to stress.  High instances of children reporting low self-esteem and eating disorders were also reported, all due to stress.

Reducing Pressure: What Parents Can Do

From birth and until a child reaches puberty, a child’s parents are by far the most important people in their life. Classmates, teachers and friends all matter of course, but parents are central to their sense of well-being. Because they’re so essential to these feelings of safety and security, children are delicately attuned to their parents’ state of mind. Therefore, the best way to prevent your child from becoming anxious is for you to approach problems as calmly and confidently as possible yourself, your sense of calm will allow your child to feel secure and safe.

If you think you may be putting undue pressure on your child to achieve academically or you think that school is causing them to feel stressed and anxious you may wish to help manage their emotions as well as your own expectations.  Here are a few ways to reduce the pressure on children:


If they seem overwhelmed, don’t shy away from talking to them.  Children often find it difficult to talk about their feelings at a young age so persist, don’t give up.  Let your child know that you love them and are there for them and that you only want to help.  Make sure your child knows that they are more important than good grades.  If you are worried that your child is being affected physically by stress or anxiety, the first point of contact would be the school. Teachers are very capable of understanding what your child may be going through and are often sympathetic. They may have some suggestions; the right tools to help, or suggest that your child ‘buddies’ with another more confident child for a while in order to help them overcome their upset.

Nurture their strengths and Interests

If your child hates Math and never seems to do well at it but loves to paint, learn to accept that it’s ok, maybe even sign them up for an art class.  By showing your child that it is ok to be good at some things and not so good at others you are not putting them under pressure to excel at everything.  Being perfect isn’t realistic but trying hard is so encourage them with everything they like until they start to show natural strengths and weaker areas. With the strengths you could award them stickers but with weaker subjects give them a strong sense of approval for trying hard and show them that effort is just as important.

Develop their self-confidence

Unfortunately, one consequence of a greater emphasis on schoolwork and achievement as children progress through the school system is that children begin to compare themselves and what they can do with one another. When marks are given for work, the question arises about who gets the best marks.  Children cannot avoid the pain of comparison of exams and the reality of their successes and failures but parents can give their children the most positive support by concentrating on what has been done well. Looking only at what could be done better risks undermining a child’s confidence in their achievements and may reinforce feelings of failure so value their strengths –even if it’s more about how kind they are to their friends than their marks for now

Setting realistic expectations

Studies show that parents setting high but realistic expectations leads to better performance in school, so to some extent expectations are important and helpful in your child’s development

Parents need to give a child ambition but without creating impossible targets.  There’s a big difference between realistic targets and unrealistic ones and not appreciating this may mean parents risk putting children under so much pressure that they’re afraid to fail

Set goals but perhaps consider a few that are achievable too so that your child rapidly learns what success feels like. The idea behind realistic expectations isn’t to set goals children can easily reach all the time, but to set goals that are definitely within their reach. They need to be challenged but equally helped to gain confidence so that they feel inclined to tackle other obstacles that will come along in life.

Make sure your child leads a well-balanced life outside of school

It can be important to value having a good routine outside school.  Children are subjected to hours of learning every week, so ideally their life outside school benefits from being balanced, positive and stress-free.

In conclusion: Primary school children ideally need a healthy balanced diet and a good sleep routine. Having enough sleep improves your child’s thinking and concentration whilst not enough can leave them feeling tired, irritable and unable to concentrate.  It is also really important to encourage your child to be active. Exercise can help boost energy levels, clear the mind, relieve stress and be fun.  Children need to have time to enjoy being young, to play, to laugh and to do whatever they wish for a bit. The importance and relevance of play that isn’t pressured is that there’s no lesson, no competition or end goal and that’s a valuable lesson in itself!