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Your daughter wakes you up at 1 a.m. You can tell she is very upset. After some coaxing, she shares her dream where she’s in the middle of her ISAT and can’t figure out the answers. She’s really worried about how well she is going to do.
There are a number of possible reasons for that stress. Some of the pressure come from the community that demands schools perform well on standardized testing to keep property values high, and trickles down through the administration to the teachers and ultimately, to the students. Some of it comes from parents themselves, who see their kids’ good test scores as "keeping up with the Joneses" and push their kids for the best scores. Some of it also comes from kids themselves.
Most Illinois school districts give two different types of standardized tests. One type is the ISAT (Illinois Standards Achievement Test), the state-required test every school uses. "The ISAT is measuring how a school is performing," says Laura Morgan, principal of Meadowview School District 46. "We get individual student results but the purpose is to make sure the district is meeting the standards set by the state."
The other is an achievement test and each district can choose its own. Achievement tests look at a child compared to himself.
It is important to talk to your child before and after the standardized test to find out how they are feeling. A few signs of test anxiety to watch for include your child talking obsessively about the test or worrying about something that never bothered them before, says Dr. Joseph Vaal, school psychologist and special education supervisor for Woodland District 50.
Here are some simple ways to help ease your child’s anxiety.
Ready: Activities for weeks before the test
Educated guess. One of the strategies children are often told to do is guess instead of leaving an answer blank. However, you want your child to make an educated guess. To teach your child how to do that, start off with a question she would not be able to answer easily. Then give her two choices, one correct and one completely wrong. For example, who was the 12th president of the United States? Was it Zachary Taylor or your best friend Ted? This process helps your child realize that some choices can be immediately eliminated. As they get the hang of answering the questions, give her a third choice that she has to think about before she can cross it out. In the above question, a third option could be George Washington.
Relaxation is key. Teaching your child some basic relaxation techniques gives him something concrete to do during the test to help calm his nerves.
Vaal suggests starting with some deep breathing. Be sure that the air is getting into the lungs. If the stomach is moving, you are pumping the air into the wrong place. As you let the air out slowly, concentrate on where you have the tension and feel the muscles relaxing. Vaal also suggests using visualization. Have your child picture his favorite place, such as the movie theater or beach, and focus on the sounds and feelings. Vaal says when your child concentrates for a minute or two on something enjoyable it will calm him down and allow him to focus on finishing the test.
Set: Ways to help during the testing week
It is important for your child to understand why she has to take this test—that the test is a yardstick that measures not only how she is doing but also how the school and district are doing. It is also essential for your child to know that you expect her to do her best.
Keep in mind:
Early to bed: A good night sleep is crucial for your child’s ability to concentrate during testing.
You are what you eat: Every morning your child should eat a well balanced breakfast. This is especially true on testing days.
Morning reminder: Right before your child leaves for school, give her a brief reminder of how to make educated guesses, a quick relaxation refresher and offer her a few words of encouragement.
A moving evening: After a long testing day your child needs time to blow off some steam. Plan a lively activity each night, such as a long bike ride, a trip to the park or even an obstacle course through the house.
Quick recap: Be sure to ask how the test went but make it short. Listen to what your child has to say, but don’t dwell on the negative. For example, if your child declares "The test is too long," answer with "Tests can feel very long. Remember to take a quick relaxation break." Or, if your child says, "It’s so hard, I’m sure I’ll be at the bottom," respond with "I don’t care if you get every one correct, but I do care that you tried your best."
Unexpected reward: When the testing is over, give your child a little treat. Let her pick the dinner destination or have a sleepover. This is not a carrot to dangle in front of her, but an unexpected reward for a job well done.
Amber Beutel is a teacher, private tutor and mother of two children living in Grayslake.