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Apr 02

The Test Are Coming…Helping Children Manage Stress

Posted by Valentine Burr in Fair Is Not Equal on Apr 02, 2013

One of the most pernicious outcomes of the current testing climate is the degree of stress shouldered by students. Anxiety becomes a fog that creeps into every nook of some school buildings. Principles are anxious about their school's performance, which may impact funding or even school closure; and teachers increasingly have pay, hiring and rating decisions based on their students’ performance. Stress is one emotion that is nearly impossible to hide; and so the intense level of pressure adults feel seeps into classrooms as if by osmosis, students absorbing the weight and impact of these tests through the very air they breathe. 

Test stress in kids can look like stomachaches, fatigue, irritability, withdrawal, emotionality, focusing difficulty, or frustration. It can impact their social, emotional and academic lives.

Of course, not all kids experience stress in negative ways. A recent New York Times article discussed some interesting research that indicates there may be a genetic component to whether individuals respond in positive or negative ways to pressure. For some individuals, stress can actually fuel performance. Other studies have shown that even people who react negatively to stress can learn effective coping strategies. In a study out of the University of Rochester, college students who were told, “people who feel anxious during a test actually do better…simply remind yourself that your arousal could be helping you do well,” performed better on tests than control groups told nothing.

Acknowledging and naming stress seems to have impact on our ability to manage it and develop effective strategies. As a society we need to look critically at the damage being done by our single-track focus on standardized testing, but until the reality on the ground changes, we need to give our students as many supports and tools as we can to help them better navigate their world.

Strategies you can use to help support your students:

  • Take some pressure off the tests. Yes, the tests are important, but communicating to kids directly that one test is never a measure of their capabilities or worth in the world is of central importance. However we feel about them, the tests are more of a measure of schools and teachers (and larger social, political and economic realities) than they are a measure of individual children and yet it is the children who feel the burden most directly.
  • Be careful, however, not to use test-taking periods to launch into larger systemic critiques. I have heard some teachers say things like, “I hate this test, but we have to take it.” This communicates a great deal of uncertainty to kids, which can lead to increased anxiety. Is it important or not? If it’s so terrible, what have I been doing all this time? That’s not to say that communities and schools might not engage in civic action to protest the current testing climate, but when kids are sitting down to take the test is not the time to engage them in these larger questions.
  • Talk openly about test stress and the different ways people cope. Share your own stories and what has helped you. Invite children to talk about how they are feeling.
  • Provide strategies. These can include: Yoga, deep breathing, visualization strategies, self-talk strategies and strategies for getting better sleep at night (such as having nighttime routines that avoid screen time just before bed).
  • Talk about the factors that improve performance beyond the “studying.” Sleep and healthy eating, for example, can have a significant impact on how children feel and how they perform.
  • Provide calming activities before, during and after test taking sessions: read-alouds, quiet music, opportunities for creative drawing or movement, physical movement breaks, etc.
  • Be sure children with testing accommodations are having their needs for extra time, separate location, etc., met. This is the time to ask for help from administrators if you can’t provide this on your own.
  • Be attuned to your own stress levels. Are your voice, facial expressions, words and body language communicating calm or potentially contributing to student stress?

How are you supporting yourself and your students right now? We’d love to know.



tagged anxiety, strategies, stress, tests
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