High-Stakes Tests, Kids’ Soaring Stress – and a Lesson Plan for Creating Calm & Focus Instead

Not even two weeks into the new year, and already, testing season is underway in many school districts around the country. And so is the backlash against standardized testing, which – according to a recent Marketplace feature on NPR – is only expected to keep on keeping on.

Now, complaints about standardized testing are nothing new, but they’ve definitely grown in strength as No Child Left Behind morphed into Race to the Top and Common Core. And there’s certainly plenty to complain about. The testing schedule has grown so vast and complex that this –

– doesn’t sound quite so far-fetched and silly anymore.

Over the past year, we’ve heard a lot more about the effects of high-stakes testing on children’s mental health and well-being. Even grade-schoolers are feeling the heat. A recent article in the New York Times described parents decrying

a system that they said was overrun by new tests coming from all levels — district, state and federal. Some wept as they described teenagers who take Xanax to cope with test stress, children who refuse to go to school and teachers who retire rather than promote a culture that seems to value testing over learning.

“My third grader loves school, but I can’t get her out of the car this year,” Dawn LaBorde, who has three children in Palm Beach County schools, told the gathering, through tears. Her son, a junior, is so shaken, she said, “I have had to take him to his doctor.” She added: “He can’t sleep, but he’s tired. He can’t eat, but he’s hungry.”

One father broke down as he said he planned to pull his second grader from school. “Teaching to a test is destroying our society,” he said.

test stressA public radio feature from Jacksonville, Florida presented similar scenes. One local pediatrician said that she’s seen a major increase in stress-related conditions through recent years.

[Dr. Wendy] Sapolsky said the uptick at her office usually occurs between February and April. During those months, she said she typically sees a new patient each day suffering some level of test-related anxiety, with symptoms ranging from stomach aches to panic attacks.

“Sometimes, these kids get so worked up as early as third grade with having to pass the FCAT’s to pass third grade, that this time of year we have some children…that have such severe anxiety that we can’t get them to school at this time of year. Literally, they will not get out of the car,” she said.

Other parents report damage from their children being held back in school despite excellent grades. Severe anxiety over testing puts an artificial drag on scores. For such children, testing can become an exercise in discouragement.

Not much research has been done yet on the phenomenon, but one of the few published studies showed that while just about 10% of students experience extreme anxiety over testing, far more children experience increased stress when the stakes are raised. A substantial number of students assessed to be “low-anxiety” in normal classroom test situations move into the moderate anxiety range in high-stakes scenarios.

These results are consistent with the hypothesis that students perceive high-stakes testing situations as more stressful and anxiety-provoking than typical testing situations that occur as part of the curriculum. Similarly, students reported significantly more cognitive and physiological symptoms of test anxiety about the NCLB assessment.

The study also found that teacher anxiety shot up, as well – both with respect to their own performance and that of their students.

Is it any surprise, then, that kids pick up on the teacher’s stress and then do less well on the test?

standardized testMaybe the biggest irony is that the stress created by high-stakes testing not only impedes a student’s performance in the moment; it actually makes long-term changes in brain structure. Research on the neurobiology of the stress response has found that the high levels of catecholamine released during stress rapidly impair the top-down cognitive functions of the prefrontal cortex (PFC), while strengthening the emotional and habitual responses of the amygdala and basal ganglia (our “fight or flight” response). Chronic stress exposure leads to dendritic atrophy in PFC, dendritic extension in the amygdala, and strengthening of the noradrenergic (NE) system.

It’s clearly a no-win situation.

Yet the hard fact is that standardized testing is here to stay – at least for the foreseeable future. That means kids – and their teachers and parents, too! – need tools and strategies for dealing with the accompanying anxiety, to become stress-hardy and able to deal with stressful situations in the moment, as they arise.

This is, of course, close to the heart of Yoga Calm. By practicing stress mitigation techniques during testing and other stressful times, we strengthen the PFC and develop good habits. Whether taking a quick time out for some Hoberman breathing; remembering “I am strong. I can do this. I can be in control;” being aware of their bodies speeding into stress response – how that feels – and confidently knowing that they know how to slow that down, that they can in fact control their physical and mental experience – all these things can help children manage the bothersome and even frightening feelings that can come up around test time.

Teachers who integrate Yoga Calm practices and processes into their classrooms regularly and reliably report less test anxiety, so perhaps it’s no surprise that they also report better test scores and grades overall. With anxiety out of the way and the stress response under control, kids can focus on expressing what they know and do better when asked to prove their knowledge or skill in a testing session.

Here’s one test prep activity from our online Practicum course:

Sample Strength Lesson Plan

Date: September 21, 2014
Population: Elementary School
Teacher: Lynea Gillen
Time: 30-40 minutes

Yoga Calm Principle/Lesson Goal: Strength
Words: “I can change my thoughts and feelings”

CALM

  • Hoberman Sphere Breathing: “Notice how watching your breath slows your mind down?”
  • Pulse Count for 30 seconds. Then run in place for one minute. Feel the pulse and count for 30 seconds. Feel the pulse slow down. We can change our heartbeat and the way our body feels by what we choose to do.
  • Changing Channels: Use images that children can relate to.
  • Volcano Breath 3 times, then 3 more times with Heart Thoughts: “Think of how you would like to feel today. Get that thought strongly in your mind, then as you exhale, spread that feeling around you.”

ACTIVE

  • Wild and Calm: Children get “silently wild” with fast beat of drum, then they put their heads down and calm their bodies for 10 beats of the drum. You can also allow students to walk around the room like satellites for 10 beats, then come back to their desks for 10 beats. Words: “I can go from wild to calm quickly.”
  • Warrior I or II, 15 beats on each side. Words: “I can be strong, even if I feel afraid or confused sometimes. I can choose to be strong; sometimes difficult things make me stronger.”

CALM

  • Twist in chair or on mat (depending on setting).
  • Relaxation – Mindful Moment card on Strength.

Download a PDF of this lesson plan.

Images by Megan Skelly &
Alberto G., via Flickr

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One Response to High-Stakes Tests, Kids’ Soaring Stress – and a Lesson Plan for Creating Calm & Focus Instead

  1. Something funny happened when my kids got to high school. They realised the teacher was the person who felt most judged by the test results. One of my kids and her classmates colluded to “not try” in the test, because they wanted to prove their teacher was “no good”. Ahhh, the unintended consequences of standardised testing …

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