Breathe! 6 Strategies to Reduce Stress During Testing Season

Part of our Cash in on Learning Series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

It’s that time of year again: TESTING! With the sun shining outside and the warm weather approaching, our kids are just itching to get outside. But, we have the monumental task of getting them to pay attention to extremely important and often times stressful assessments.

Since the implementation of the NCLB legislation (2001), our schools have seen more standardized testing than ever before in American education. While the assessment of our children has values, the toll it takes on the time spent teaching and learning—and the social-emotional impact on our children—is enormous.

I’d like to offer suggestions for helping your students through the pressures and stressors of the testing season. We want our kids at their very best when being assessed on their acquisition of knowledge, but test anxiety, stress, exhaustion, and even depression can have a massive effect on our students’ performance. Also, testing season can increase our students’ feelings of inadequacy, highlight their fixed mindset, or increase their contempt for school. Below are six strategies to use with your students during testing to increase their motivation, reduce their anxiety, and help them perform better on the tests.

  1. Learn to Breathe: Deep breathing is an essential component for reducing stress, relieving anxiety, and ensuring better health. Throughout our day, most people breathe relatively shallow in nature, meaning we take short breaths without expanding our diaphragm (stomach area muscles) or lungs. Deep breathing is accomplished when we take a deep inhalation of air through the nose, hold it for up to three seconds, and then exhale slowly through the mouth. Mundare_Alberta clouds by Mykola Swarnyk wikimedia commonsHave students practice this at least three times throughout the day, and most importantly, at the beginning of the test, during the test, and at the end of the test. To extend this action, you can add in spreading your arms like a bird, raising them up on the inhale and lowering them down on the exhale.
  2. Visual Imagery: Imagination has a powerful effect on how we feel about stressful situations. Visual imagery is a way for students to picture themselves successful at the assessment. Have your students sit quietly in a comfortable position at their desks, up against a wall, or even on the floor (it’s important for the child’s back to be supported). Have them close their eyes and think about a time when they were happy or relaxed, such as when they were flying a kite or playing on a beach. Then have them focus on that feeling and project it into the future when the testing is complete. Encourage the students to smile throughout the visualization—the act of smiling can have a tremendous effect on helping us feel better. Have them imagine themselves at the end of the test, feeling good about what they did and relaxed after it’s all over. Avoid using any negative terms, such as fear, tension, stress, etc., because these may cause the child to focus on the negatives rather than the positive imagery.
  3. Peer Sharing: Giving students a chance to talk about their fears, anxiety, or stressors before, during, and after testing can help them understand that they are not alone in how they feel. It can also help them feel useful to their friends. Partner students with someone they like or value, and give each partner the letter A or B. The first two minutes, student A gets to talk while student B listens. The A students should talk about how they feel about the testing, what scares or challenges them, or any concerns they have with the assessments. At the end of the two minutes, the B students spend up to one minute reflecting back to the A students what they heard and any ideas of how to feel better or what might help make the situation better. Repeat the round now with the B students talking for two minutes and the A students reflecting back. You may want to model the activity for your students first, giving them ideas for how to listen well, reflect, and offer ideas or suggestions.
  4. Silly Charades: Sometimes, the best way to reduce stress is just to have fun! Most people know the game charades. This take on the game is to inspire humor and laughter. Create or have students contribute silly phrases, names, or topics on small pieces of paper, such as “don’t get your underwear in a knot” (phrase), Harry Butts (name), snot algae (topic). Ask a volunteer to come up, pick a slip, and proceed to act out what’s on the slip. You can give students signals to use to indicate each of the categories. For a phrase, have the volunteers put two fingers on their lips and extend their hand away from the lips. For names, have the volunteers point to their chest (as in noting themselves). And for topics, have the volunteer use an opening of a book motion. Play a few rounds to recharge and reenergize your students.
  5. Silent Ball You Tube vidoe by Alan Strange youtube com ZUhcuEwy8scSilent Ball: Another way to get your students physically active during the stressful time of testing is to have them play a game of silent ball. Students toss a soft, light ball like a Nerf ball to one another in the room. However, there is no talking or making of any sounds. Have students stand at their desks or in a circle around the room. Explain to the students that the teacher is the only referee and has the final say in all “outs.” Ways to get out are: poor tosses to other students (over their head or beyond their reach); missing a catch of a good toss; and making a sound or talking. When a student is out they must sit quietly at their desk until the game is over. Getting physical is a great way to have fun and reduce anxiety.
  6. Relaxing Through Music: Using relaxing classical music (Brahms, Palestrina, Schumann, and Mendelssohn, to name a few) or music created for relaxation, do a similar activity to that of Visual Imagery. Have students listen carefully to the music, noting all the nuances in the orchestration, or finding the different instruments used or the repeated patterns within the music. Another idea is to have students create a scenario in their imagination that goes along with the music. Add in the deep breathing to enhance the experience. Also, keep students focused on smiling throughout the listening and relaxing.

No one really likes being tested. However, in education it’s unavoidable. The more tools we can offer our students in reducing testing anxiety and stress, the more likely they will be to perform to their potential on the tests. Also, keeping your room environment comfortable, safe, welcoming, quiet, well lit, free of odors, and visually appealing can also improve students’ focus during the time of testing.

What other ideas do you have that you use in your classroom to help students relax? I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas. Post them to the comments.

Richard Cash EdD, FSP AuthorRichard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Advancing DifferentiationDifferentiation for Gifted Learners


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About Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.

Writes the "Cash in on Learning" post series for Free Spirit Publishing.
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