Reducing Test Stress
Strategies for standardized test anxiety
By Tiffany Creager
My family moved from Michigan to Indiana in April of 1988, the end of my 2nd grade year. Upon joining my new class, my teacher did an informal assessment to determine how my instruction would begin. Because it was the 80s, it took a few weeks for my files to arrive from my previous school. My new second grade teacher later shared with my mom that she was glad she had gotten to know me prior to receiving my files as my standardized test scores did not reflect what she saw from me in the classroom. It seems I tested on the day pictured here!
Fast forward to high school as I waited at the mailbox for standardized test scores to be delivered to my house believing my entire future would be determined by those numbers, my mom gently suggested I not compare my scores with my best friend who happened to be (and still is) extremely smart. I was confused because I considered myself to be pretty smart too! I got good grades, I enjoyed learning! Sure, standardized tests made me feel sick to my stomach and I sometimes had nightmares about number 2 pencils and bubble sheets, but I couldn’t imagine that anxiety was affecting my scores.
Turns out, it was! I grew up in a home where education was valued and expectations were relatively high, but I never consciously felt pressured to perform well on tests. Still, the monotony of the test itself, the way my teachers broke from their engaging antics and read from scripts, giving only carefully worded encouragement (which didn’t sound all that encouraging at all) caused me to freeze and ended with me getting a score that didn’t reflect my true ability.
As it turns out, I am not alone. Many students experience test anxiety at varying levels. When kids are anxious, they aren’t always able to think as clearly as they might when calm. It may be difficult to sustain attention for long periods of time when anxious thoughts consume the mind. Students may also sweat more, have increased heart rate, become emotionally upset, begin to doubt themselves or become agitated. This is even more prevalent for students who have struggled in a school setting in one way or another. The good news is that there are some things we can do to help! Read on to learn how we set the tone of a stress free testing environment and how a multitude of strategies can be pre taught and simply prompted to encourage students to work from a place of calm!
It starts with us!
With more and more of a teacher’s performance evaluation being tied to the results of their students’ standardized test scores, it’s no wonder teachers feel anxiety on testing day. Even if the external message in class is “do your best” “this is just to help me know what you need” and other encouraging, “it’s no big deal” messages, emotional contagion is real and it is likely that the students feel the underlying anxiety. This is especially true for students who are already nervous or who are prone to anxiety. The best thing the adults in the building can do is regulate themselves on test day! Here are some quick ideas to help achieve that relaxation:
- Test day breakfast with colleagues that begins with a few deep breaths and remains focused on the positives!
- Administrators write (authentic) letters of appreciation for teachers and staff to open before students arrive
- Dance party! Either join together or simply play some fun music over the intercom and encourage teachers to shake off any stress!
- Laughter – find ways to laugh together as a way to strengthen community and lighten the stress carried in!
Test Day Preparation
For many students, the change in routine is as anxiety provoking as the test itself. In addition to actual schedule changes, teachers must shift the way they engage with students to ensure they are following testing guidelines and this can be difficult for kids. This change in relationship dynamic was hardest for me as a student and as a test administrator! While the changes will and must still occur, some prep work can help alleviate stress on testing day.
- Let students know ahead of time that you are only able to prompt using certain language – practice that with your class. Can you find a way to make it fun? Let them know that when you wink, for example, it’s your way of saying, “You’ve got this!!”
- Practice questions in the same format they can expect to see on the test – add it to your daily bell work so they’re familiar seeing it
- While showing them expected format is important, balance that with fun ways to review content! Activities such as games, students becoming teachers, and scavenger hunts will help the material stick and as students come across familiar content on the test they will be reminded of the fun they had learning it!
My colleague and friend graciously allowed me to shadow an SAT prep training he offers to teachers. I walked away wanting to take the test again! Well, maybe not that excited, but definitely with a new outlook on standardized testing. His perspective reminded me that, no matter what we believe about standardized testing, if we are having to administer it in the classroom, we can at least frame it in a positive light that motivates our students to want to try their best while also understanding that their best is enough – no matter what that looks like.
As I thought more about this I was reminded that anxiety and excitement present the same in the body – meaning that both emotions raise levels of cortisol, quicken heartbeat, and prepare the body for action! The difference is anxiety is wrapped around a negative story focused on what could go wrong and excitement is opportunity seeking, imagining what could go right!
So, how do we switch from anxiety to excitement? We tell ourselves we’re excited! Sounds ridiculously simple, doesn’t it? Yet, there are numerous studies supporting the efficacy of this tactic! A 2010 study found that reframing anxiety as helpful rather than harmful helped people perform better on the math section of the standardized GRE! If you have a student who is presenting as anxious, tell them how that energy can be helpful! Let them know that excitement can help them perform better! Say, “I’m excited to take this test.” This is more likely to be effective if talked about beforehand and used with students who have mild levels of anxiety. Still, we can help reframe for everyone by:
- Giving examples of anxiety as a superpower allowing students to focus on the task at hand like a basketball player headed out for a big game channeling their nerves into their best performance yet!
- Talking about how a test can benefit the students! For example, completing the SAT can open doors for post high school learning even 5 years after students have taken it! So, even if you aren’t thinking about college now – if you change your mind, this will save you having to take the test later!
- Tricking the brain into seeking the positive with simple phrases such as, “Today is going to be a great day!” or “I’m excited to take this test!”
- Ask students to jot down some things they are grateful for to help move their mindset to that of gratitude rather than frustration or worry
Integrating breath activities into your daily routine will empower students to regulate themselves as they recognize changes in their physical or emotional state. This is beneficial on test day as breath can help bring awareness to the task at hand, enhance focus, and regulate a dysregulated brain! Practice the breathing exercises below ahead of time and remind students of their benefits on test day. Be sure to praise or notice students using these techniques with a gentle squeeze of the shoulder, thumbs up, or wink of an eye!
- Alternate Nostril Breathing – this practice calms the mind, increases focus, and balances the left and right brains!
- Belly (or diaphragmatic) Breathing – this type of breathing calms the mind and body, brings awareness to the breath, and relieves tension
- Grounding Activities – while not only a breath activity, this is a great way to decrease stress, shift awareness away from negative thoughts and into the present moment, and improve mood!
Emotions are innocent, acting as data points for our brain and body by letting us know what we might need. They are also meant to flow in and out of us but sometimes we get stuck! Fear or nervousness can be one of those emotions that get in the way of students performing well because they struggle to move past it. This is something that I still struggle with and had I learned these strategies earlier in life, might have saved me quite a bit of angst! It’s never too late though – so try these for yourself and your students as testing season approaches.
- Expressive Meditation – active techniques to help physically and mentally move through a feeling or emotion we are stuck in! Rooted in ancient medicine, this technique is far and away my FAVORITE way to work through tough feelings and ready myself for the task at hand. These techniques promote relaxation, decrease stress, increase focus, and change mood! Essentially, try physical activity! My favorite is shaking and dancing. You can find a gonoodle shaking activity here. Or just play some of your favorite music and shake off the worries and then dance the stress away!
- Journal – another great way to get those worries out of your head is to put them on paper. Some people worry that naming what we are feeling by writing it down or talking about it will give power to the emotion, but in reality the opposite is true. Writing or talking about it takes the power away from the feeling and gives it to the individual! Journaling is a great way to release stress before a big test. You might suggest that students draw their feelings, or write down a worry and then imagine and write about a positive outcome, or, my favorite, name their feeling and dialogue with it! This last activity separates the person from the worry helping the author! Some kids even like to draw their worry as a worry monster and begin to recognize when the worry monster is trying to take control of their thoughts. This is a powerful way to regain control and calm!
Tapping is a fantastic way to increase self-esteem, disrupt the fight and flight response, and decrease anxiety! This evidence based technique consists of tapping your fingertips on certain points on your body (pictured here). This is done by talking yourself through the worry and into a feeling of safety and calm. Start by introducing your students to this scientifically proven technique here or here! After just a few times doing guided tapping exercises, you’ll be able to prompt students with a simple tapping motion and they’ll be empowered to reduce stress as they sit at their desks. This is a great tool for building self-confidence and reducing stress everyday in the classroom!
Attend to the basics
Students will be at their best if they are rested, fed, hydrated, and physically and emotionally safe. While much of this may be out of our control as teachers, we can make sure that everyone is safe, fed and hydrated at school. Talk to your kids in the days before testing about the importance of healthy sleep and eating habits to encourage wellness at home. Not everyone will take the lessons home, but I guarantee you at least a few will be telling their parents they need a good bedtime and eggs for breakfast! At least, that’s what my daughter tells me on testing days! It is also important to limit the amount of homework or rigorous academic work during testing weeks.
It seems as though standardized testing isn’t going anywhere any time soon so, no matter our personal opinions, we can choose to make it as positive of an experience as possible for our students. Many students suffer from test anxiety but by using the techniques above we can make these days as stress free as possible, while at the same time, demonstrating how to work through stressful situations and celebrate success big and small.
Ultimately, you may find that there are very different strategies that work for different groups of kids. Ideally you’ll have time to practice each of these strategies in non stressful situations before putting them to the test (pun intended) on testing day. It is important to ask the students to reflect on how each strategy makes them feel so that their bodies will start to understand the cause and effect of each activity on them as an individual.
The ultimate goal might be that they turn to these strategies without outside prompts but with an internal awareness of what helps them feel best! Finally, to all of my amazing teachers who were likely never rewarded for my standardized test scores, I am sorry and I want you to know that I love to learn! I am generally successful and look back at my years in school as joyful!
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