De-stress for the Test: Reducing Test Anxiety in Elementary Students
Tests are a routine part of any educational experience. The 2002 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and its counterpart, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015, legislated that every third through eighth grader in United States public schools is given standardized tests that correlate with state standards. According to Edutopia, in a study of the nation’s largest urban school districts, students took an average of 112 standardized tests between pre-K and grade 12.
For some students, however, tests can be a source of stress. This can be especially true for elementary students, who are just learning the process of test taking and understanding the reality of being graded. In fact, test anxiety starts to kick-in for students anytime between second and fourth grade and progresses through middle school and high school.
Whether your students are suffering from high levels of stress, or are just a little nervous, we’re offering advice for reducing test anxiety in elementary students.
What is Test Anxiety?
Test anxiety is a psychological condition resulting in stress and nervousness in testing situations. Many people experience a little apprehension before (and sometimes during) a test. In fact, some anxiousness can be beneficial as it creates an adrenaline rush that helps your elementary students stay focused and perform well under pressure.
For other students, though, feelings of worry can become overwhelming and can have a negative impact on test performance. Test anxiety can reduce working memory, interfere with reasoning, and increase mistakes. Students with high anxiety can often perform about a half a letter grade below their low-anxiety peers.
It’s when nerves and stress can’t be easily managed that you need to find ways to help students cope with test anxiety.
What are the Symptoms of Test Anxiety?
The symptoms of test anxiety can vary among students. In elementary students, they can range from mild nervousness before a test to physical symptoms including headaches, nausea, shortness of breath, or rapid heartbeat. Along with physical symptoms, affected students can also experience feelings of helplessness and disappointment, as well as anger and fear. Anxious students also report having difficulty concentrating and often have negative thoughts, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
As a teacher, you may be able to recognize signs of anxiety just by observing your students. Test anxiety in elementary students can present itself in behaviors such as being exceptionally fidgety or quieter than usual. Some students may even express their concerns to you before the test.
Reducing Test Anxiety in Elementary Students
If your students are nervous about an upcoming exam, there are steps you can take to build confidence and reduce apprehension.
Preparation is key
Promote good study habits and remind students to review for several days before a test rather than cramming in information the night before. Spend time reviewing the material as a class, too.
Practice makes perfect
If possible, offer practice tests or trial runs, especially for younger students who may be new to test taking. This way, they can experience a test-like setting before the actual exam.
Go beyond the right answer
Successful test-takers do well not just because they know the answers, but also because they give themselves the best chances for doing well. They read all directions carefully, highlight important information in the question before proceeding, and answer questions they know first before going back to the tougher ones. Using scrap paper to complete math problems will help students get organized, and creating outlines or notes before a writing assignment will keep students on track, which also helps reduce anxiety.
If anxiety builds before or during a test, help your students relax by reminding them to take deep, slow breaths and make a conscious effort to relax their muscles. Consider incorporating mindfulness activities into your daily routine, especially as you approach test day.
Highlight healthy habits
Before test day, promote a healthy lifestyle that will benefit all areas of a student’s life, including test-taking skills. Getting a good night’s sleep and eating a nutritious breakfast will set the foundation for a successful test session.
Don’t underestimate the power of a growth mindset. Encourage your students to believe in themselves when it comes to their test-taking abilities and remind them that a test grade doesn’t define their self-worth. Most importantly, help your students to celebrate their individual growth and successes throughout the year.
Engage parent help
Parents are your partners in your students’ education. Share your tips for reducing test anxiety with parents so that they can support your students at home— include it in your classroom newsletter, send home a handout, or share a quick note on a parent-communication app.
How Can You Reduce Test Anxiety in Your Classroom?
As you approach any test, there are fun and easy steps you can take to reduce test anxiety in elementary students.
Set the tone
Post a variety of positive messages on your board or distribute individual statements of encouragement to students. Keep the tone upbeat— remind them that tests are an opportunity for students to show what they’ve learned and they should feel proud of their growth through the year.
Address the stress
Acknowledge that tests can be stressful, but remind your students that they can do it. Promote their self-confidence by encouraging them to believe in themselves and reassure them that you don’t expect perfection, you just want them to do their best. Need inspiration? Check out how this class “cut-up” their anxiety.
Try a treat
Studies have shown peppermint promotes mental alertness, so offer small peppermint patties or mint candies to your students. Or, provide a pack of Smarties® to remind students that they have what it takes to conquer the test.
Bust out the brain breaks
During a particularly long test, break up test-taking sessions with quick stress busters. Let your students roll the dice on these brain break options.
Unwind at the end
After the test is over, celebrate with a reward. This can range from an in-class movie to ice pops on a hot day. And most of all, remind your students that you’re proud of them for working hard and doing their best.
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