By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., author of Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.
Just like we know spring will eventually come, so too will the testing season. Along with testing comes the perennial crop of weeds of test anxiety, burnout, and stress. Luckily, just like weeds in a garden, anxiety, burnout, and stress can be abated and controlled.
There is no sense in arguing the pros and cons of testing, how much time is consumed by testing, and the validity or appropriateness of the tests. No matter what you think about testing, it’s a fact of life in our current educational system. It’s better for us to help kids learn how to keep their garden (mind) free of the weeds, or at least help them manage the weeds, so the weeds don’t overtake their garden.
I’ve blogged about stress-relieving strategies in the past. I’d like to offer more ideas on how to help your students overcome the common ills of testing season. Let’s start with anxiety.
Test anxiety, the fear or worry about doing well on a test, affects more students than we realize. Anxiety is a normal response to any stressful situation. It only becomes a problem when it overtakes us and paralyzes one’s ability to think clearly and act appropriately. Some of our students may not express the anxiety out loud or visibly; they may internalize the anxiety, causing it to manifest through stomachaches, nail-biting, sleeplessness, or irritability. In most cases, anxiety is worrying about what might happen or trying to control what is out of our control. Anxiety comes before the testing even begins—therefore we need to give students strategies well before the testing starts to lower their levels of anxiety.
Ways to help students reduce or alleviate test anxiety include:
- Get your rest. Getting a good night’s sleep many nights before (not just the night before) the test will help kids be well-rested for the grind of taking the test.
- Get comfortable. If students will be sitting for long periods of time, allow them to bring in cushions or pillows to sit on.
- Get lucky. Have students bring in a lucky charm (a rabbit’s foot or four-leaf clover) or something that reminds them of something pleasant (such as a sea shell from a trip to the beach). This is simply something for them to focus on to put them in a good mental space.
- Get confident. Have kids repeat positive affirmations about themselves to get them confident in their abilities. (For example, “I will try my hardest, I will do my best, and I will be proud of what I can accomplish.”)
Testing burnout happens to students after long grueling hours of sitting and trying to stay focused on something that gives them little to no joy. There is also the worry about the pressure to do well on the test. All this and more can lead kids to feeling burned out while being tested. Doing anything that is not enjoyable (such as taking a test) for more than 10 minutes can cause us to lose focus, be easily distracted, and not perform at our best. Therefore, I recommend these simple strategies to help kids avoid test burnout:
- Release your tension. Allow students to stand and stretch routinely during the testing. This can be done silently and within a minute or two.
- Release your anxiety. Give students time to close their eyes and visualize success or that happy place that makes them feel good.
- Release the toxins. Your body naturally builds up toxins in stressful situations. One way to remove those toxins from your system is to do deep breathing. Have students take in a deep breath through their nose, hold it for a second or two, and exhale through their mouth. Do this a couple of times to help them relax and release toxins.
- Release your doubts. Help kids do positive internal talk. Have them repeat in their head something like, “I can do this and I’m going to be successful.” Simple, positive self-talk can help kids feel more secure during the testing process.
Stress can be both our friend and our enemy. Stress can make us jump higher, run faster, and increase alertness. However, it can also produce body pains, digestive ailments, sleep problems, and lack of focus. Negative stress comes from unrealistic expectations (set by the student, parent, or teacher), issues of self-esteem, low self-efficacy, or poor self-regulation. Here are some tips to help your students deal with the stress of testing:
- Learn to eat healthy. Before, during, and after the tests, teach your students the value of avoiding high sugar and processed foods. This will help them alleviate digestive issues and generally make them feel better.
- Learn to manage your time wisely. Prior to the tests, practice time management strategies such as answering the questions you know readily, saving the most difficult or challenging questions for later.
- Learn to identify the symptoms of stress. Teach students how stress affects the body and ways to lessen its impact, such as through breathing, taking breaks, and relaxation techniques.
- Learn to live in the moment. There is no sense in worrying about what might happen, but there is value in being prepared for what could happen. Teach your students to release their worries and be prepared for the unexpected or unanticipated.
Every child is a flower in our garden. Helping them deal with their anxiety, burnout, and stress can inoculate them against the weeds out there.
Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.
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