Are we making a sick future?
| Nuwan Dissanayaka - 01 Oct 2023

Highly competitive education systems, while intended to foster excellence, can inadvertently damage children’s mental health. The constant pressure to outperform peers and meet exceedingly high expectations can lead to chronic stress, anxiety, and even depression. Children may develop a paralyzing fear of failure, which not only affects their academic performance but also erodes their self-esteem and overall well-being. The relentless pursuit of perfection in such environments can result in burnout, where children experience physical and emotional exhaustion, leading to a decreased interest in learning and an increased risk of long-term psychological issues. Moreover, the focus on competition often overshadows the importance of holistic development, depriving children of the opportunity to explore their passions and develop crucial life skills. In essence, extreme educational competition can come at a steep cost to children’s mental health, emphasizing the need for a more balanced and nurturing approach to learning.
What can we expect if things continue like this?
 Children who experience extremely high levels of competition in their education may face a range of psychological problems and challenges.
• Anxiety and Stress: The pressure to constantly excel and outperform peers can lead to high levels of anxiety and stress in children. They may worry about not meeting their parents’ or teachers’ expectations, which can have a detrimental impact on their mental health.
• Perfectionism: Highly competitive educational environments can foster perfectionistic tendencies in children. They may feel compelled to achieve perfection in every aspect of their academic and extracurricular activities, which can lead to unrealistic standards and constant self-criticism.
• Low Self-Esteem: When children face intense competition and perceive themselves as falling short, it can erode their self-esteem. They may develop negative self-perceptions and believe they are not good enough, which can have long-term consequences for their self-worth.
•  Burnout: Excessive competition can lead to burnout, where children become physically and mentally exhausted from the constant pressure to perform. This can result in decreased motivation, decreased interest in learning, and even physical health issues.
• Depression: The constant pressure to succeed can contribute to feelings of hopelessness and depression in some children. They may struggle to find joy in their accomplishments or experience persistent sadness and withdrawal from social activities.
•  Social Isolation: In highly competitive environments, children may be so focused on their academic or extracurricular pursuits that they neglect their social lives. This can lead to social isolation and a lack of essential social skills.
• Reduced Intrinsic Motivation:  When competition is the primary motivator, children may lose their intrinsic motivation to learn for the sake of learning. They may focus on achieving external rewards or avoiding punishment rather than developing a genuine love for education.
• Risk of Cheating and Unethical Behavior: The intense pressure to succeed can push some children to engage in unethical behaviors, such as cheating or plagiarism, to gain a competitive edge.
• Physical Health Issues: High-stress levels can have physical health consequences, such as headaches, stomachaches, and sleep disturbances. These physical symptoms can further exacerbate psychological distress.
• Long-Term Impact: Children who grow up in extremely competitive environments may carry psychological scars into adulthood. They may continue to struggle with self-esteem issues, anxiety, and perfectionism, even after their formal education is complete.
 Transforming the South Asian education system into a more nurturing and less competitive one involves several key strategies. Firstly, shifting the focus from rote memorization and high-stakes exams to a more holistic and skill-based approach can help reduce competition. Encouraging project-based learning, critical thinking, and creativity allows students to develop a deeper understanding of subjects while fostering collaboration instead of rivalry. Additionally, adjusting grading systems to emphasize individual progress rather than relative performance can diminish the pressure to constantly outdo peers. Schools should prioritize students’ well-being by promoting mental health awareness and providing support services. Moreover, fostering a culture that values cooperation over competition, where students are encouraged to help one another, can create a more inclusive and compassionate learning environment. Lastly, engaging parents, educators, and policymakers in conversations about the harmful effects of excessive competition and the benefits of a more balanced education system is crucial for bringing about positive change in South Asian education.

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