Stress among school children leads to health problems | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 25.02.2010
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Stress among school children leads to health problems

Amidst global insecurities in the job sector and high unemployment among graduates, China is looking for ways to beef up the education system. But many are critical, saying the Chinese system is tough enough on kids.

Children across East Asia are forced into a competitive system based on ranking

Children across East Asia are forced into a competitive system based on ranking

Competition is a key factor in the Chinese school system and parents push their children to be the best among their class mates. Many say this is rooted in Chinese tradition. Additional classes, which take place after school hours and on weekends have become universal in China, even for pre-schoolers.

"Tummy aches and headaches"

And according to findings by Therese Hesketh's study: "Stress and psychosomatic symptoms in Chinese school children", it has been creating problems in the children's mental health.

China Internet Cafe in Peking

Many children are turning to a virtual world for escape from adult pressures

"What we found was that children worried a lot about exams," says Hesketh. "They were very afraid of their teachers, in fact nearly two thirds of them were afraid of being punished by their teachers. And bullying was very common, more so among boys. And nearly three-fourths of children were actually punished by their parents on a regular basis. In terms of symptomtology, a third of the children actually reported headache and/or abdominal pain at least once per week, which is very high levels by any international standard."

The findings were the same for rural and urban children and for only-children and ones with siblings. It also found that children in the top quarter were more likely to show symptoms of stress.

Yong Zhao has studied educational systems in China and the West. He says the Chinese system is too harsh and the number one problem is the competition. "Asian competition judges you not on how you are as a person, but on how much better you are compared to the next guy."

He says the strong competition, among other things, drives children to escape, getting hooked on video games, to resignation or depression, sometimes ending in suicide. He points out, "one of the elements is the human cost of education. People do not recognize. And this is a topic normally off limits. The government does not want to release any data about this."

Schulkinder in China

The same standard applies to all children

Children have fewer coping mechanisms

"We know as adults how stress impacts our performance," says a former school councilor, Molly McCloskey . "We tend to make mistakes, have problems with perseverance, have difficult time focusing. But we forget that same on kids, who really have very few outlets for that stress."

Yong Zhao speaks from experience, when he says that sheltering the children from the rest of the world causes them to have problems later on in life. Therese Hesketh agrees. "There is evidence from other places that children with these sorts of levels of stress are likely to have mental health problems later on in life. We don't know what the case is in the Chinese situation because it has not really been looked at, because this level of stress, particularly at this young age is relatively new and I think this is something that needs to be looked at very carefully and I think is something that needs to be researched in the future."

Solving the problem is what many have wanted for years, says Zhao. "The Chinese have been trying to change it. The government doesn't like it, parents don't like it. But everyone says 'this is what it is', so I don't think you will see major changes any time soon. The Chinese have been trying to change it for the last two decades, as far as I can tell, because they wanted more emotionally sound, morally nice people, more like a human beings rather than a test machines but somehow they are stuck."

So now the government is under pressure to come up with solutions to ease the pressure.

Author: Sarah Berning
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein

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