When I was a kid in the secondary grades, one of my greatest fears was tests. Despite the fact I was an “A” student, I hated them. Being tested scared me: I would get stomach aches, cry and claim I did poorly on them, even though I always did well. My parents even offered to pay me to get a “C” so I wouldn’t worry so much. (I never got paid.) I have no idea why I was so afraid. I liked learning, I liked school, and the pressure to do well was almost nonexistent then.
Today testing stress begins at an early age. Years ago, I was in an East Oakland elementary school and the halls were covered with posters, made by kindergarteners, to cheer on the older kids during testing. Frankly, getting 6-year-olds to partake in the culture of testing made my heart hurt.
The focus on testing has become so intense that teachers feel enormous pressure. And students share that pressure to perform. I’ll never forget a second-grade teacher telling me that one of her students was throwing up because of how nervous she was about tests.
Although I believe in assessing student performance as one way to determine if good teaching and good learning is happening, I think tests often miss the mark. Plus, important achievement often goes unrecognized because it’s not “tested.” Many teachers share this perspective. And with each testing season, teachers are looking for strategies to lessen the pressure on their students.
The good news is that mindfulness helps calm everyone down about the process of testing. Instead of worrying about tests, being present for them enhances students’ chances for success. (A recent study suggests that the daily program of Inner Explorer, an online mindfulness platform, increases students’ performance in reading and science and reduces discipline-related events.) Asking students to take three deep breaths before a spelling quiz every week prepares them to do the same before taking tests for which the stakes are higher.
Even small, mindful actions will help students. Students can put their hands on their bellies and observe their bellies getting bigger when breathing in and getting smaller when breathing out. Or they might notice the shoulders rising with each in breath and falling with each out breath. Tying the movement of the breath to the body can help students anchor their minds when they feel anxious. Paying attention to the breath stimulates the parasympathetic “rest and digest,” calming part of the autonomic nervous system and bringing the body into a state of equilibrium. Because the exhalation is actually what stimulates the relaxation response, children—and adults!—benefit by breathing in for four counts and then breathing out for eight.
Testing is a difficult time for students, families and teachers. If you have a student who struggles with testing anxiety, try using the following role-play, centered on breathing, to help relieve their stress. Really, practicing this type of visualization with all students can help them be in the present moment while taking the test instead of worrying about the test. Once they’ve done it a few times, they’ll be prepared to use this strategy during actual testing.
Today we are going to bring mindfulness to test taking.
Schools use tests to see how much you are learning.
Tests can have interesting effects on students.
What are some of your feelings about studying for tests?
What are some of your feelings about taking tests?
Today we are going to bring our mindfulness to taking tests.
Imagine you are in class and I am about to pass out the test.
As I do so, close your eyes and begin to practice your breathing by paying close attention to each time you breathe in and each time you breathe out.
Take five mindful breaths, breathing in calm and relaxation and breathing out any nervousness or fear you have about the test.
Breathing in…and breathing out. Now take four slow breaths on your own. (Give students 40 seconds to take those breaths).
Now imagine yourself picking up your pencil and holding it gently between your fingers. Take three more slow, deep breaths here. (Allow 30 seconds of silence.)
Imagine yourself answering the first two questions. They are easy and you feel good.
Now imagine that the third question is a little confusing. Instead of getting nervous, you put down your pencil and take three more breaths, each time breathing in calm and breathing out the confusion. (Allow 30 seconds of silence).
You look at the question again, and you decide to answer it or return to it later. No biggie! The next questions are not hard for you and you feel good.
At the end of the test, if you had skipped any questions, you return to them, taking a few breaths before working on each one. You do the best you can and finish the test.
You put down your pencil, feeling good about sharing what you have learned with your teacher.
Grossman, the director of program development and outreach for Inner Explorer, is the co-author of Master of Mindfulness: How to Be Your Own Superhero in Times of Stress and the co-founder of Mindful Schools.