By: Keisha Dubuclet, The Center for Development and Learning
While this is the time of year we welcome warmer and brighter days, and look forward to the brilliant colors of flowers, anxiety is blooming in many of our kids. With the first third of the season focused on taking the LEAP and iLEAP, the “all-or-nothing” climate of high stakes testing produces swarms of fear and anxiety hovering in the minds of students grade 3 and above.
As parents, we see firsthand how these feelings manifest. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked, “Mom, do you think I’m going to pass 4th grade?” My coworker’s 3rd grader, who is taking the iLEAP, is up late into the night and has trouble sleeping because he thinks missing just one or two questions on the test will result in failure. Although the iLEAP isn’t factored into grade level promotion, the heavy emphasis on test performance seems to have kids in all grades feeling excessive – not to mention, unhealthy – stress.
While a little nervousness is normal, being overly anxious and focusing only on negative outcomes can actually hinder performance. Physical symptoms, such as nervous shaking, crying, and “butterflies” in the stomach, may interfere with concentration. Emotions, such as fear and negative thinking, can result in kids “blanking out” or second-guessing themselves during the test, even though they studied and are sure they know the answers to the questions. Encouraging children and helping them to focus on positive outcomes can help alleviate test anxiety.
Here are some tips from CDL’s parents who are in the throes of supporting their kids through the LEAP and iLEAP:
“The test does not measure how smart you are, but how well your teachers are teaching you.” Research has shown that when children’s performance is personalized – negatively or positively – they are more likely to relate that performance to their self-worth, or lack thereof. Rather than letting her son personalize his performance on the iLEAP, our Program Coordinator took a different approach.
She explained to her son that the LEAP and iLEAP are primarily used to determine how well a school or district is educating their students; the only way to do that is to ask questions to find out what the students know. By doing this, she eased her son’s mind by transferring responsibility from her son to the school. This helped him to understand that standardized tests do not determine whether or not he is smart.
“The test is not a reflection of the total YOU.” In addition to my oldest child, I have a set of identical twins. When people see the twins together in a picture, I often get comments about how different each twin looks. Well, of course they look different! A picture is a snapshot in time, capturing each twin doing something different at the exact same moment. One twin may be smiling while the other may not; one may be titling his head to the right while the other may be looking toward the camera, making them look different in that one moment. However, that doesn’t mean their identicalness isn’t real or doesn’t exist.
I use this same analogy to help put my 4th grader’s anxiety over the LEAP into perspective. I explain to him that the test is one snapshot in time. Just like the picture only captures one aspect of his brothers, one test does not capture who he is as a whole person. We talk about his overall performance in school, focusing on his accomplishments. I also try to highlight his non-academic accomplishments, such as serving as a Junior Coach, getting the Student of the Week award, and how he recently moved up to orange belt in karate – all in an effort to help him understand that one test does not define who he is as a student or as a person.
“What matters most is doing your best.” Encourage kids by recognizing effort as well as performance. Research shows a clear connection between effort and achievement. When kids understand that increased effort leads to increased success, they may realize that they are not limited by their “smartness” or lack thereof; rather, success is more a result of dedication and hard work. Carol Dweck calls this the growth mindset. Having a growth mindset can help kids realize that their overall success is not limited by one test on one day, but by their performance throughout the school year, their hard work, their dedication, and their character.
“Focus on positive thoughts.” Research has shown that focusing on positive thoughts can be a great motivator. Our bodies are programmed to respond to negative emotions by focusing on what’s causing the emotion and closing off all other thoughts; this makes it hard for the mind to function at its best. On the other hand, positive thoughts open the mind and broaden people’s outlooks, which increases attention and thinking. Barbara Fredrickson calls this the “broaden-and-build” theory of positive emotions.
Parents can help foster positive thinking in kids by having them focus on the accomplishment rather than the test itself. A reward, such as a family outing for a snowball when the test is over, can give children something to look forward to – thinking positively about the end result rather than thinking negatively about the test itself. Another great way to help kids reduce anxiety is by having them write their thoughts on paper. Expressive writing about test-related worries and anxieties before taking the test has been shown to improve performance.
Teachers and schools, understandably, place high emphasis on the LEAP. However, I also find myself referring to the test, saying things like “We need to make sure you’re [my son] prepared for the LEAP” or “You’re in 4th grade; this is LEAP year” – probably more frequently than I realize. Not only do kids tend to reflect the adults around them; they also look to adults to understand how to handle intense events. Sensing anxiety in adults can trigger anxiety in kids. Alternatively, staying calm, grounded, and positive can help alleviate their anxiety.
Test anxiety is normal, but parents can play an essential role in helping children manage their feelings. It is important to be aware, encouraging, and that your child knows that you support him/her.
Beilock, S. (podcast interview). How writing about testing-worries boosts exam performance in the classroom. Science Podcast. Retrieved March 26, 2014 from http://www.sciencemag.org/content/331/6014/211/suppl/DC2.
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.
Fredrickson, B.L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218–226.
Kamins, M. L. and Dweck, C. S. (1999). Person versus process praise and criticism: Implications for contingent self-worth and coping. Developmental Psychology, 35(3), 835-847.
Ramirez, G. and Beilock, S.L. (2011). Writing about testing worries boosts exam performance in the classroom. Science, 331, 211-213.