Does your child have to wake up long before daybreak to catch the bus and make it to school and then stay up late in the evening to complete homework?
Is your child playing and sleeping enough for his or her age? These are some of the questions health experts are asking as concern mounts over the effects of excess academic workload on children.
The experts warn that a crisis is in the offing across the country as schools get caught up in a rat race for academic success – and in the process stealing precious time from children and literally driving them up the wall.
The case of six-year-old Tatiana is a good example. She crawls out of bed at 6 am. to get ready for school. In quick succession, she’s taken for a bath, dressed and fed breakfast.
One hour later, Tatiana is crawling through traffic with her father as they make their way to school. She has to be in class by 7.30 am.
She joins her classmates for a day of learning that stretches to 4 pm. Then, the school bus picks her up and an hour later, she’s back home.
Another gruelling session begins – there’s homework to be done. Tatiana’s parents say that often, she will finish her homework by 7pm – but is so tired that she has to eat her dinner while standing so she does not drift off to sleep.
Tatiana is one among thousands of pupils driven into the adult world status by parents and schools that want to raise nothing but academic giants.
On the opposite side of town in Mlolongo, seven-year-old Jayden is startled out of his dream world long before Tatiana. His alarm is set for 4.30am, the hour that most lights come on in houses around where he lives as house helps scamper to prepare children for school.
Jayden has to catch the school bus by 5.30am for the traffic jam-laden journey to school on Ngong Road. The ride from Mlolongo isn’t as scenic because in nine out of 10 times he is lying on his schoolbag catching up on some sleep. Other times he has to finish homework in the bus.
In another case, Joyce is a high school student in a boarding school in Nakuru County. The morning wake-up call goes off at 3.30 am. By 4 am, the school is dead silent with students seated at their desks for the morning preps.
The rest of the day, save for meal breaks and one hour in the late afternoon, is spent either with teachers drilling some aspect of the syllabus into their heads or in class reading. “I hate school,” Joyce told the Sunday Nation spontaneously.
Now experts are raising the alarm, warning that parents and teachers are getting it all wrong – and hospital records of an increasing number of children requiring counselling exist to prove it.
No less than Kenyatta National Hospital has fired off a warning to Education Cabinet Secretary Jacob Kaimenyi saying the situation is careening out of control – informed by the growing number of children arriving for counselling because the over-the-top routines are getting under their skin.
INCREASED PSYCHOLOGICAL CASES
Dr Josephine Omondi, a child psychiatrist at Kenyatta hospital has warned that there has been an increase in psychological and psychiatric cases of children and adolescents arising from stressful lifestyles in school in a society that glorifies academic excellence.
“Some schools have dropped physical exercise lessons altogether to maximise on academics. As a result, these children are perpetually tired and sleepy, irritable and have poor concentration as they are half-awake during the day.
“If the status quo continues, these children will be negatively affected and their future will be put in jeopardy, notwithstanding good academic performance in some of them.
“The number of children breaking down citing academic pressures is worrying, and some children suffer silently in order to hold up the family ‘pride’. This is disheartening,” Dr Omondi told the Sunday Nation.
Some parents are even doing the unthinkable in order to support their children. When you get home at 8 pm and find your child with a large amount of homework in every subject every evening, the parent opts to do the homework for the child so that they can sleep early; it’s no secret that most of the homework is done via Goggle and other Internet sources.
A parent, Mr Kennedy Wekesa, says that from his observation, those in day schools are burdened by loads of homework, while those in boarding schools are exposed to stringent academic hours that sometimes make little or no allowance for other activities for social interaction and rest.
Keith, a parent of a four-year-old, says owing to the chilling experience in doctors’ consultation rooms because of his daughter’s congested chest and unending cough, he was informed the cause was from the 30-minute morning wait for the school bus at 5.30am.
“My wife and I made a deliberate decision to move closer to the school so that the children can wake up at 7 am, prepare for school without stress and later walk to school,” he said, adding that they would rather commute from Thika than have their children school in Nairobi.
Mental health specialist Ian Kanyanya is worried that society has placed a high premium in academic achievement at the expense of other aspects of development.
“We went wrong somewhere as a society because we are not raising our children in a wholesome way,” Dr Kanyanya, who specialises in children and adolescents, said in an interview.
Nor has he been spared by the situation which saw a change in mood and performance in one of his children.
“My child moved from being a top 10 student to the bottom 10 because of the ‘crazy’ school schedule that laid much emphasis on academic performance and gave little time to other spheres of a child’s development,” he said.
He says a child should be allowed to grow but not turned into a “perfect little adult”.
Dr Kanyanya remembers the days when as a student in the 1970s and 1980s, performance in class was balanced with participation in sports, games and other out-of-class activities.
“We had well-planned timetables that clearly spelt out our lessons, games, preps, including ‘lights-out’ so that we could sleep,” he said.
Dr David Bukusi, who runs a youth clinic at Kenyatta National Hospital and specialises in child and adolescent matters, agrees that there is undue pressure on the young ones and calls it a time bomb.
“We are bringing up robotic children who parrot everything they get in school, yet they cannot assimilate it within their unique respective environments,” Dr Bukusi said.
The pressure is extended to break times. “Holidays are stressful periods for both parents and children because they have too much homework, or attend tuition,” Dr Bukusi added.
The specialists warn that due to these changes in lifestyle and an increasing demand for academic diamonds, children are bowing to the pressure showing symptoms that indicate they cannot handle it.
“The children develop somatoform disorders which are a group of mental illnesses that cause bodily symptoms, including pain but cannot be traced to any physical cause,” Dr Omondi said.
Developmental psychologist Mbutu Kariuki says that owing to current societal pressures, parents are pushing their children to conform to superficial, non-sustainable standards.
“We are sacrificing our children at the altar of fame and money because we want to gloat about where they go to school and that they are the smartest in their class,” said Mr Kariuki, adding that parents are oblivious of the ego-damage of children who do not perform as expected.
“As you boast to your friends that your child is in expensive and academically-endowed school across town, you have an unhappy and bitter child at home who wishes they did not have to attend school the next day,” Mr Kariuki added.
According to him, when faced with the academic pressure from society and parents, the child becomes isolated and no longer finds pleasure in activities that they earlier amorously enjoyed like playing.
“It is not entirely true that you cannot find an age-appropriate school for your child where you live,” Mr Kariuki said, adding that the closer the school is to a child’s familiar environment, the better for their overall development.
“When a child begins being easily irritable, increased fatigue, bedwetting, exhaustion on waking up, makes up reasons not to attend school, poor concentration in class, reduced appetite, crying often and being unkempt there is a problem somewhere,” he added.