September 27, 2020

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Exam Students’ Mental Health Needs Attention

Source: Guyana Chronicle
Originally published: 6th July 2020

By Vishani Ragobeer

SUPPORT systems should be put in place for students who will be sitting the ‘high-stakes’ examinations as their mental health is at-risk, according to Trinidadian Psychologist, Dr. Margaret Nakhid-Chatoor.

In a recent online engagement, Dr. Nakhid-Chatoor addressed the mental health effects of children in the Caribbean writing ‘high-stakes’ examinations amidst a global pandemic and the ramifications caused by that. These examinations include the secondary schools entrance examination (known as the National Grade Six Assessment in Guyana) and the Caribbean Examination Council’s (CXC’s) Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) and Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examinations (CAPE).

“Children and youth are mostly resilient, but during times of uncertainty such as this pandemic, they would experience more stress and anxiety and their mental health concerns would increase if there is a lack of structure, support in their homes and if there is no interaction with their peers and teachers,” the psychologist explained.

Furthermore, she emphasised that children and adolescents are “social beings” who require social interaction for growth and development. This pandemic and its emphasis on physical distancing have been antithetical to that.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, pupils and students would have spent months away from the normal school routine and their social interactions with their teachers and peers. In Guyana, schoolchildren returned to school to prepare for NGSA, which was held on July 1 and 2. Secondary school children have also been attending classes in preparation for the CXC examinations slated to begin next week.

Parents and teachers praised Guyana’s Education Ministry for a job well done on sanitising the schools and putting sufficient measures in place to ensure that the threat of COVID-19 was minimised. Dr. Nakhid-Chatoor, however, is contending that while policymakers have been perceptive in implementing “physical” safeguard measures, across the Caribbean, a focus on the holistic well-being of children was not being considered. Focus on the mental well-being of children, particularly those in less-than-favourable circumstances during the pandemic has not been given enough attention.

Physical distancing measures put in place at St. Sidwell’s Primary

“The narrative continues to cater for those homes where parents were able to engage with children, and those homes where the fridges were stocked with food,” she stressed while adding that “there was no narrative for marginalised and disadvantaged children.”

According to her, there are children who would have been in homes where they had access to online services, where their parents’ livelihoods were not adversely affected by the pandemic and where their living situation would be conducive to learning. But then, there are many children who have not been in those favourable circumstances and who had challenges learning during the period.

The day before this year’s NGSA, the Guyana Chronicle spoke with Lamheimant Ram, of Albouystown who indicated that online learning was a challenge for his daughter, as the household did not have internet access until two weeks before. In Aishalton, Region Nine, this newspaper also spoke to a secondary school teacher who indicated that internet and communication technology (ICT) is not readily available in the region. However, the region nine teacher tried sending questions for her CSEC students to work via Whatsapp and went above and beyond to distribute worksheets to her students, who were living in sometimes distant communities.

There is a very real challenge of educational disparities, the psychologist emphasised, adding that all these factors impact children’s mental health and their ability to learn.

SAFETY AND SECURITY

In May, a sixth form student, Vijay Sharma, penned a letter to the editor of this newspaper. In that letter, he expressed his frustration that the CXC examinations were still being held when the Caribbean has not managed to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. Furthermore, he wrote of his and his colleagues’ disapproval of the CXC using only School Based Assessments (SBAs) and the traditional multiple choice, paper one examination for students this year.

“As a student, I can confidently state knowing that many others share this sentiment, that students are tired. We are fatigued, we are exhausted, weary, drained, and most of all fed up. Whichever way you put it, students as a whole are tired of this whole exam affair,” Sharma wrote.

The CXC has remained firm in its decision that exams will be held at the stipulated time (that is, beginning from July 13). Dr. Nakhid-Chatoor related that it is expected that the students will panic at the mere thought of the change in examination structure, even if nothing else affects them. She pointed to the fact that these students spent five years preparing for the examinations and have worked past papers and conditioned their minds to a particular examination format.

Cognisant of this, she highlighted that teachers need to take some time to revise with the students in ways that ensure that a sense of “safety and security” prevails.

“This is what children need to feel right now- they need to feel safe and secure that they will be able to do it,” she said, reasoning: “The teacher and the administration of the school are very important here, because parents can’t do it.”

In addition to ensuring that children feel a sense of safety and security, she also advised that the respective ministries of education include adequate personnel- whether guidance counsellors or social workers- to help children work through the upcoming weeks of examinations. This is particularly important for marginalised children who may be returning to schools with “baggage.”

“Many children seek sanctuary at the school, for their mental health,” she said. Many schools provide children and students with resources that they may not have at home, including: hot meals (through the school-feeding programmes), amenities, guidance and counselling and a safe space for them to be themselves. Though these all affect the various aspects of a child’s holistic health, the absence of any of these weighs on one’s mental health, according to the psychologist.

In the medium to long-term, the Trinidadian advised that there are many things that can be improved upon within the education sector, given that the pandemic has exposed the myriad of disparities that exist.

She indicated that resources need to be aimed at “catching up” and transitioning students who are falling behind in their education. Great focus should be given to the provision of reliable and accessible mental health services for both students and teachers, and incentives should be provided to teachers who have gone beyond the call of duty at this time, she said.

And finally, she suggested that greater focus must be given to training teachers for blended learning (using both online and traditional platforms) and equipping the education system to accommodate this.

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Exam students’ mental health needs attention