Originally published March 27, 2019 in eschoolnews.com.
By Michael S. Gaskell
It’s that time of year again. Standardized testing is making its way throughout American schools, and with it, nerves are ramping up. Because high-stakes tests happen all year (e.g., midterms, formal assessments), you can use any or all of these strategies at any time. However, they are especially helpful during the intensity of high-stakes testing season.
These strategies are quick, easily adaptable to any school setting, and work with all age groups. Employing just one will be helpful, but the progressive effect of adding them together is even more effective.
How to prepare your students for tests
Set up exercises before testing each day. Given that students sit for most of their school day, this is effective even during a non-testing day. Remember that on testing day, students may sit for up to two straight hours! Intermittent body movement is critical to good circulation and flow, and with that, the mind moves better. This quick warmup is effective before a test and during a break between sections.
Have students follow an exercise routine in the classroom; here’s an example. Better yet, have your physical education teacher make a video; students likely connect more with their own teachers. Play energetic/motivational background music. Getting the body activated in this way is important, especially right before a long period of sitting, and will activate a child’s mind to think more creatively and critically.
2. Test site visitation day
We decided to help reduce student (and faculty) anxiety by scheduling a test site visitation day. Here’s how it works: Several days before testing week, schedule students to visit their test site. Just being in a test-site location matters, as being in that context helps put students minds at ease. Do an announcement like this one, explaining that this is no different than their regular classroom setting and that they likely know some kids. They also get to meet the proctor.
3. Free write test anxieties and discussion
We know from research that anxiety is reduced when students write about their test worries. We incorporate this practice into our test site visitation day: When students are in the room with their peers and proctor, they can take a few moments to free write. Next, they talk about their concerns and there is a brief discussion class wide about a few of the main worries. Often, students say out loud, or may think privately, “Wow, others have the same worries as me. I’m not alone.” That shared experience helps validate concerns and can be a calming experience.
4. 3-minute meditations
Mindfulness techniques and tips are everywhere, and for good reason. In a busy student’s day, it is so important to slow down, quiet the mind, and practice simple strategies that help reduce test anxiety and offer lifelong skills for tackling worries. Here is a video that can be shown along with the exercise video, or you can alternate these so the strategies do not become redundant. Better yet, if you have a teacher trained in yoga, have him or her create a mindful breathing video.
A bonus tip: We offer a test quote of the day, by a teacher, on our morning announcements. These are sensible tips, like making sure you arrive at school on time. By hearing faculty do this, students make a stronger connection since they usually have one or more of these teachers. We also blast videos out to parents the day before a testing day so they can reinforce this at home. Here is one of these short tip videos.
Again, all of these can operate as standalone or combined strategies to help reduce anxiety in advance of a major test or standardized assessment. Any combination strengthens the benefit students receive by having multiple strategies. By setting up a framework that allows students to draw on multiple approaches, they benefit from the likelihood that they are better equipped to face the assessment. At the same time, they can reduce their anxiety in ways that can teach them to generalize this life skill. What better way to teach than offer short-term strategies that also work as lifelong ones?
Dr. Michael Gaskell has been principal of Hammarskjold Middle School in East Brunswick, N.J. since 2006, following experience as a special educator and assistant principal in Paramus, NJ. Gaskell achieved his doctorate in educational leadership in 2014 and continues to model the pursuit of lifelong learning as he serves as a mentor to new principals in other schools through the NJEA Leaders to Leaders program. In his work as a principal, he works tirelessly to support instructional excellence, his faculty, the district, and, most important, the children as benefactors of idea sharing.