NAPLAN stress caused my child to self-harm during the exam

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

​The NAPLAN stress is real: this I know for sure. While my Year 9 son Joe* was sitting in a room doing a make-up NAPLAN test with a dozen or so other kids, he became so stressed out, he removed the blade from his sharpener and carved the word "f**k" into his left forearm.

The supervising teacher noticed (how could you not?) and accompanied Joe to the guidance counsellor's office, who called me to the school.

It was the silence, Joe told me later. He felt the oppressive silence of the room closing in on him, creating a pressure he said was almost visceral, and he couldn't stand it.

This wasn't the first I knew of Joe's NAPLAN stress. He was sitting in that room doing a make-up test in the first place because the idea of being lined up at a desk in the middle of the school hall with hundreds of his peers filled him with so much anxiety that he didn't even feel he could take his seat.

Jack has suffered from severe anxiety for the past three years or so. Before that he was an easy-going high achiever, effortlessly getting As in everything and getting along with everyone. But something changed when he turned 12, and we've been trying to work it out ever since.

We've got psychologists, psychiatrists, alternative therapists and parents on the job – all trying to work out how to help this stressed out, confused child.

In the meantime, he continues to put pressure on himself to do well, to be perfect. It's a pressure that has never come from home, so I don't understand why he does it to himself. But rather than fail or do poorly, he chooses to disengage. It happens in exams, in classes, in friendships, in life.

It means he spends a good percentage of his school life in the school's chill-out zone instead of in class, learning. And it means his friendships are limited.

When I got to school the day of the NAPLAN make-up test, Joe was so embarrassed by what he'd done. He wouldn't let the school nurse clean his bloodied arm. I asked if he could be left to clean it himself, which he was. Then he asked if he could please be allowed to go back to his regular class. He didn't want to miss English.

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The guidance counsellor explained to me that Joe will now get a "did not complete" on his NAPLAN. When he was younger, his NAPLAN report always showed him as being off the charts in most areas, and as parents we marvelled at this little prodigy we had created.

The difference is so jarring, as a parent I find it hard to reconcile that this is the same child. I never really wanted a genius, I just wanted a well-adjusted child who would turn up and try their best.

Now I'm just hoping we can find a way for Joe to make it through high school.

In the scheme of things, not completing NAPLAN is not a big deal. It's a series of exams we hear a lot about – especially regarding the pressures they put on our kids – but what effect does a Year 9 diagnostic exam really have on anyone's future?

I don't blame NAPLAN for my son's inability to cope with pressure – that's a problem that was clearly already there, and something we're continuing to work on. But I've come to realise that these moments in time we are conditioned to place great importance on aren't really such a big deal after all.

Life is more than any single test. It's really a series of turning up and doing the best we can with what we've got on the day, and each day is a fresh chance to do just that. That's the lesson I want my son to learn.

* Name has been changed. The writer has chosen to remain anonymous to protect her son's privacy.

If you or anyone you know needs support you can contact the Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; Lifeline 131 114, lifeline.org.au; beyondblue 1300 224 636, beyondblue.org.au; SuicideLine 1300 651 251