All info and no leisure makes ‘Nimal’ a dull boy

Too heavy and too intense for the period that the child is in school. This is a sad but true fact even though a child spends six hours each day for five days a week, stresses a doctor from a panel of specialists who have not only treated numerous schoolchildren with lesson-related issues but also studied the large number of subjects and content being drummed into the brains of children.

The heavy workload naturally spills over from school hours to the home, consuming the child’s entire day, says Consultant Paediatrician Dr. Ajith Amarasinghe, explaining that the information overload results in teachers being unable to cover the syllabi properly and doing it in a piecemeal manner, giving the children loads of homework to catch up. This also compels the child to drown in tuition.

“The obvious result is that the child has to continue his formal education in his precious leisure time,” he says, asking what happens when the child has less or no leisure time. The child does not have time to rest, rest which is essential for both mental and physical development during his growing up years.
The situation is further aggravated by frequent examinations, three major term tests, with smaller tests in-between, with more stress being piled on if the child is sitting a national exam such as the Grade 5 scholarship exam or the Ordinary or Advanced Level, says Dr. Amarasinghe, recalling his comparatively carefree childhood when the first school term from January to April was devoted to a variety of extra-curricular activity. “The sportsmeet, the prize-giving etc were held then and we had such fun. The first test was at the end of the second term.”

Today, the outcome is horrendous, according to this Paediatrician. Less leisure time with an excess of information being poured into the child’s brains with examinations thrown in, leads to mental stress. This is soon followed by stress-related symptoms such as headaches and body aches and pains. In a severe outcome, there is an alarming rate of suicides linked to educational reasons.

Another outlet children may seek out of such stress is substance abuse, he says. Dr. Amarasinghe relates how parents even of very young children have got stranded in this competitive education system, pushing toddlers to high academic achievements.

Pointing out that he has seen elective mutism or loss of speech in young children due to undue stress, he says four-year-olds go home from school with too much of homework. He also recalls parents of a three-year-old accusing the child of his inability to study (igena ganna be) and looking at him (the doctor) in surprise when he asked what they were teaching the little one.

Poor immunity and frequent illness are also the by-products of lack of rest and physical activity, says Dr. Amarasinghe citing the viral diseases that are rampant among children. As the education workload is heavy, the child does not have time to rest even during an illness, what with copying notes and parents rushing the children back to school even though they have not recovered fully. “This not only prolongs the illness but also leads to a deterioration of the general health of the child over time.”

On the other hand when such a child goes back to school with the illness still lingering, it spreads to others as well. Most classrooms look like hospital wards with children coughing, sneezing, down with diarrhoea etc.

If some of the dengue deaths are analyzed, it may very well be due to massive strain on the body following lack of rest for recovery, he says. Dealing with the other important issue of play, both formal (sports in schools) and non-informal (games at home), Dr. Amarasinghe says these days schools are finding it difficult to get children to take part in extracurricular activities.

Such physical activity is essential, he says to improve strength and stamina and long-term health.
Many are the developments that take place when a child indulges in play – interaction with others, keeping to rules, acceptance of leadership or even taking on the role of leadership, it is learnt.

Coming to grips with human feelings by being able to face both defeat and victory is also vital, he says, as well as learning to cope with pain. All life-skills which come in handy as adults. The obvious result of lack of playtime can be seen in the alarming number of obese children that we come across today, he says, dealing a shocker – 30% of children in city schools are obese, the harbingers of hypertension, diabetes as future adults.

It’s one rat race, sometimes even before child is born

I am no educationist, noro am I a graduate, but for years I worried over the state of education now prevalent in the system. Having had no platform to air my views it was a pleasure when I read Kumudini Hettiarachchi's article in the Sunday Times of October 3. I welcomed the chance to write and congratulate the panel of specialist doctors on their praiseworthy and timely work on putting things in order so as to enable every child to reach its highest potential while developing a sound, stable personality.The subject, Education Overload and its dire consequences to the health, personality and wellbeing of an entire generation is to say the least, most terrifying. May I present my views on these ideas and other factors arising from them.

Stress arises from the overload on the brain and from fatigue due to travelling long distances by school van after rising at dawn, irregular meals and studying long hours in school, tuition classes and doing homework set by the school. No time for childhood relaxation and play.

Unsupervised television viewing in addition to being bad for the eyes, contributes wrong ideas and values. Parents do not understand enough to educate the children by criticizing the bad effects of advertising and the low quality tele dramas. Even the type of cartoons shown do not measure up. Teachers do not have the time or sometimes the ability to give good advice as the syllabus takes all of the school time and classes generally have fifty odd children.

I live in the countryside so I get a ringside view of the problems faced by the majority of parents. The one desire is to get their offspring into the so-called ‘elite schools’. So soon after or even before the child is born plans are afoot to achieve their aim. Those who are able to do so, may move their residence in close proximity to a chosen school while others will do their best to ‘pull strings ‘ and if they succeed send their little ones in the early morning school van. They may even resort to feeding them nutritional supplements to gain the promised brilliance.

The 5th year scholarship examination or even if it becomes a 7th grade examination is an abomination that should be scrapped. Parents especially mothers are on tenterhooks from the time when the little ones are either in preschool or in grade one. From grade three or even earlier children are dragged from tuition class to tuition class, to keep up with other families and their children. There are also parents who by hook or by crook send their children to international schools which may or may not be up to standard.

So the rat race has come to stay and a new form of discontent prevails. Another phenomenon is that, to cover up on the failure or low marks, parents teach their children to lie to the neighbours or others about their marks and position. This competitive spirit is producing people with no solid values, while training them to push one’s way to the top by laying stress on achievement, ignoring other human values.

May be this is the state of the world at large but I feel it is paramount whenever or wherever we can to minimize these bad effects so as to produce a future stable generation. The solution to these problems lies in providing the highest possible facilities to neglected village schools and making it compulsory for the children of the village to attend the school at least up to Grade 7. If these schools are upgraded with facilities for both the O’Levels and A’Levels it will solve all problems in the educational sphere.

Instead of 5th grade or 7th grade scholarship examinations a method of selection could be put in place. All principals and teachers in these schools could look out for exceptional children and recommend them for scholarships and those recommended could be presented to a panel of eminent educationalists to test them on intelligence quota and examine their past school work reports etc.
These gifted children of extremely poor background could then be awarded scholarships to continue their education in any school of their choice. This too should only take place at 7th grade or later. By this method the entire 5th grade population will be spared this tortuous scholarship examination.

As mentioned in the article children are force fed information of which they have little interest because it is often beyond their mental age. Most of the contents of a 6th grade history book is more suitable for a 9th grade or 10th grade child. I have most of my life helped children with their English using two books from ‘Songs the letters sing,’ the Radiant Way series, the Radiant Reading series and the Lady Bird key words scheme with much success. Children enjoy them and it is surprising that the English child is taught or has been taught with great care, using a scientific method while our children to whom English is a second language are exposed to difficult and haphazard methods. So this makes it difficult for the majority of students with only the most persevering and privately tutored child succeeding.

I would like to recall a point made by Dr. Deepthi Attygalle in a speech made at the Ladies’ College Prize Giving some years ago, in which she said that most students with high marks entering university, from elite, private or any other schools, were unable to think positively, creatively and independently.
We can then imagine that there is no production of a really wholesome intelligent creative personality by the present system.

Humans need a free and happy childhood and this should be preserved at any cost to produce worthwhile good citizens.

I appreciate Minister Bandula Gunewardene forming the Parliamentary Consultative Committee of the Ministry of Education and wish them success.

Indumati Gunewardene

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