Sunday, March 8, 2015

Tips for Lowering Stress During High-Stakes Tests

Are your students stressed out about testing? Are you? As an elementary school teacher, I have seen students who get so stressed out by the fear of testing that they “freeze up” and have trouble remembering everything they learned during the past year in the classroom. They know the material, and I know they know it, but they are so stressed out by the idea of high-stakes testing that they are temporarily unable to perform well.

In order to relax students, there are several techniques you can use. Depending on your school environment and access to materials, you can try some or all of these techniques in your own classroom.

I’ll start with some of the long-range techniques I use to get my students to focus.

Medicine Balls

I love these. I started out with just four of my own, but allowed my students to bring in their own from home. Students sit on these instead of their chairs. They are softer and more comfortable than regular hard student chairs, and they help develop core strength in students.

Have Students Bring Their Own Medicine Balls for Seating

They are FABULOUS for students with ADHD, and all my students absolutely love them. I no longer have problems with students rocking in their chairs and flipping out of their seats. The medicine balls allow movement, but without the danger.  Plus, muscles that are allowed to move become more relaxed.

These are great for those kinesthetic learners, too. You know the ones who are always tapping a pencil or clicking a pen and driving everyone crazy with the noise? You tell them to stop, but they start up again after a few minutes. It’s because kids NEED to move! Give them a medicine ball and they will channel that extra energy into quiet movement.

Regular Physical Activity

Don’t cancel P.E. because of all the material you need to cover before the test. You think that there just isn’t time to teach it all, so you look for things to cut from your schedule. You think that you can then add those found minutes you took from P.E. and add them to you teaching time. Big mistake! All you’ll get are more behavior problems in your classroom, and less focus from your students. Physical activity stimulates blood flow, which sends more oxygen to the brain, and helps students to think more clearly.

Hopscotch and Jumprope Are Excellent Outdoor Activities

Instead, add brain breaks to your daily schedule. Two to three minutes of physical activity inside your classroom every hour or so will wake students up, increase blood flow and oxygen levels, and help students stay alert for that fabulous lesson you have planned for them.

Brain breaks can be as simple as a few minutes of jumping jacks, Simon says, or dancing to disco music. The Internet is full of ideas for brain breaks. Try some!

Testing Environment

Get kids used to taking tests in a quiet, structured environment in a low-stress way. Before my students take regular classroom tests in math, science, English, or anything else, I have a series of things I have them do to relax.

Once all my students are seated and ready for the test (bathroom and water breaks have been taken, pencils and scratch paper are ready, and everyone is focused on me) I lead them through a short series of deep breathing exercises. I point out to them that studies have shown that when kids are stressed, they tend to hold their breath.

Remember Those Sharpened #2 Pencils!

For example, Johnny is taking a test. He doesn’t know the answer to question number 17. Rather than working through the strategies you have taught him to find the correct answer, he starts to panic. Without realizing he is doing it, he tenses up. He holds his breath or severely restricts his breathing. This starves the brain of oxygen, and makes it even more unlikely that he will be able to find the answer. This leads to even more panic, and sets in motion a cycle that is difficult for the student to break. This is when students try to ask for help from their teachers (forbidden on high-stakes tests) or even begin to cry.

Students of All Ages Get Stressed During Testing

Relaxation Techniques

To help my students break this cycle I teach them relaxation techniques as they take tests throughout the year. The first of these is deep breathing. As students are about to take a test, I have them take several deep, cleansing breaths. Then I have them repeat after me, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and my goodness, people like me!”

This always makes them smile, which further reduces test anxiety. Then I remind them to use the deep breathing techniques and repeat this phrase to themselves whenever they start to panic during the test. After several months of doing this together as a class, it becomes a habit for most students by the time the state tests roll around.

I also incorporate some simple yoga stretches students can do while sitting in their chairs. One that works well for high-stakes testing (when students aren’t allowed to turn their heads from side to side) is this one. Have students grab underneath their upper legs while they stretch their upper bodies upward. Then have them slowly touch their chins to their chests. Each movement should be held for about five seconds.

I usually play classical music (such as anything by Mozart) whenever students are working independently in my classroom, but this is not allowed during state testing. It helps calm students, while stimulating thinking, especially in math and science.


Something that helps create the same feeling of peace and gentle mental stimulation for students as music does, but without breaking testing protocols is using visualization. This is another technique that improves with practice, so I teach and use this with my students throughout the year.

Have students close their eyes. (I always get some giggling from my boys when I first start teaching this technique, but the more I train my class, the better they act.) Start by describing a scene in detail. It could be a walk through a forest, or a day at the beach. The key to making this technique useful lies in your descriptions. Add as many sensory details as you can possibly think of, and do it in a low, soothing voice.

Visualize a Calm, Peaceful Place

Ask students to imagine a movie playing in their minds as you describe the scene to them. Continue this slowly for 30 seconds or so the first time, eventually building up to a minute or two over a few months as you practice this with your class. Eventually, you want them to choose their own “relaxing place” within their minds, so that they can go back to it whenever they feel the need.

These are just a few of the relaxation techniques I use with my students. What are some of the ones you have found successful for helping your own students? I hope you will share with us by leaving a comment below with your own tips. 

Thank you for reading my blog. “See” you next time!

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