Regulating Strategies to Deal with Test Anxiety

Last week we welcomed Marc Brackett, Director, and Robin Stern, Associate Director, of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence back to The Willows. In their talk to parents and the larger community, they reminded us of research findings that show children in schools today experience higher levels of anxiety than their parents. While there are myriad potential causes for this anxiety, one cause that is especially present this time of year is standardized testing taking place in schools. bubble-test

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, children suffering from anxiety related to taking standardized tests typically present three main categories of symptoms:

  • Physical symptoms, often resembling those related to a panic attack, including headaches, nausea, diarrhea, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, and light-headedness
  • Emotional symptoms, including feelings of anger, frustration, fear, helplessness, and disappointment
  • Behavioral/cognitive symptoms, including difficulty concentrating, thinking negatively and comparing yourself unfavorably to others

At The Willows, challenges like these make us feel more grateful than ever for our burgeoning partnership with Yale and the RULER program for emotional intelligence that we are implementing in our community. In order to address these concerns straight on, specifically with our youngest test takers in third through fifth grades, the members of our Willows RULER team recently met with our Upper Elementary teachers.

Due to two to three teachers in a classroom, Willows teachers are able to meet regularly during the school day at our monthly Learning Lunches, where DK-8 faculty are invited to meet, watch, and discuss a video on a topic relevant to our professional practice and break bread together (often with colleagues who teach in separate buildings and rarely see each other.)

For this particular lunch, rather than watch a video and then discuss potential applications for our different classroom settings, we began with an open forum led by RULER team trainer and 5th grade teacher Alex Wolfe, who asked everyone to begin by sharing strategies they’ve used over the years to mitigate student test anxiety.

All teachers emphasized the need to impart to students specific and concrete strategies to use when anxiety begins to rear its ugly head during testing, such as:

  • Don’t spend too long on one question
  • Skip certain questions and come back to them at the end
  • For questions that require written responses, don’t leave them blank (even if you have no idea how to respond – anything written can be scored!)
  • Use positive self-talk and mindful breathing

(See below for links to more specific strategies and tips)

self talk

Certain teachers also shared related posters they already have on display in their classroom for their students. Alex shared that one particular piece of advice she tells children is that these kinds of tests are designed so that some questions are hard and some are easy, so if you don’t answer one correctly it’s ok, because usually no one answers all the questions correctly.

self talk 2Particular attention was given throughout the discussion on how best to help our 3rd graders, who are facing the standardized testing experience for the first time. Many teachers acknowledged the need to strike a fine balance when talking to these students about testing; it’s our job to simultaneously convey that on one hand they need to take the test seriously but also try to regulate their stress as well.

Christina Kim, our Director of Student Life and leader of the school’s RULER team, shared that it’s important for children to recognize that standardized tests can be thought of as a different genre that we all need to be able to comprehend. Like other texts, it has certain structures and conventions that are predictable, and just like we would with any project or assignment, we all simply must try to do our best.

Christina also shared some related posters photographed on our recent school visit to High Tech High. I felt that all teachers present left our lunch meeting empowered to help students navigate the wide range of emotions that arise during test taking.

growth mindset poster

For more information on test taking anxiety please visit:

https://childmind.org/article/tips-for-beating-test-anxiety/

https://www.iecaonline.com/PDF/IECA_Library_Test-Anxiety.pdf

Raising Resilient Children

What is the mind? What can we do to help kids develop a resilient mindset when facing life’s challenges?

These perplexing and provocative questions were just two of many raised and discussed at the most recent event in our annual Ideas@TheWillows speaker series, led by acclaimed UCLA professor and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute Dan Siegel.

E_17_Speaker_Dan_Siegel015

One of the things that I truly value about working at The Willows is our community’s willingness to engage in a thoughtful exchange of ideas with extraordinary people like Dr. Siegel. I first became aware of his work in my early years of fatherhood, when my wife and I read his book The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. Later, I became aware of his efforts to introduce mindfulness into schools through his Mindsight Institute’s MindUp curriculum that we’ve used parts of with middle school students at our school.

In his wide-ranging and lively talk, Dr. Siegel shared findings from research about resiliency, which he linked generally to the concept of integration in brain research. Adults and children who are adept at integrating the various systems of the brain in a harmonious manner are better suited to facing life’s challenges without becoming overwhelmed or disconnected. To illustrate this at one point in his talk, Siegel asked for volunteers – specifically, people who sing in choirs (including our Director of Library Services Cathy Leverkus) – to come on to the stage with him. He gave his singers various directions to demonstrate the results of an integrated brain (harmony, where different singers worked together towards a common goal) versus a non-integrated brain (chaos, where different singers covered their ears and only sang their own song). E_17_Speaker_Dan_Siegel040

Besides sharing essential brain research for everyone to ponder, Siegel also underscored several helpful takeaways specifically for parents in attendance. According to Siegel, the most powerful finding from parenting research that many are not aware of is the need for parents to make sense of their own lives first – in his words, “It doesn’t matter what happened to you, it’s how you make sense of it.” If we neglect to engage in this process of looking inward and examining our lives, we run the risk of sending mixed messages to our children as we direct them to make good choices in their lives.

Additionally, he mentioned several times the importance of parental presence. I have found myself repeating one line from his talk several times on this subject:

The more present you are, the more you are willing to learn about who your children are versus who you want them to be.

In Siegel’s view, modern parents’ preoccupation with a future destination for their children often leads them to send messages that provoke shame, which he defined as the opposite of resilience, as well as encouraging children to compete with each other instead of “competing with the world’s problems.”

Afterwards, I debriefed with my colleague Andrea, who is part of a team of teachers at The Willows working to implement and strengthen our school’s RULER emotional intelligence program from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. One connection she made between his message and our school’s work with mindfulness and emotional intelligence was Siegel’s emphasis on the need to look inward, to be aware of this inner world that we all need to connect to in order to recognize and regulate the energy associated with our emotions. Clearly, this message applies for adults and students alike in our community.

One final note: Siegel did give an answer to our initial question above – “What is the mind?” – which I have to share (I would recommend reading one of his many books on the subjects of mind for a detailed explanation:)

The mind is the embodied and relational self-organizing process that regulates informational flow between ourselves and others and the planet.

E_17_Speaker_Dan_Siegel002
Lisa Rosenstein, Head of School, Dr. Dan Siegel, and Christina Kim, Director of Student Life

The Power of Trust

I was listening recently to a podcast from Tara Brach, a psychologist and meditation teacher, and she began by revisiting a famous quote from Albert Einstein:

 I think the most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’ This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves.

If we consider the universe to be unfriendly, he posits, we will direct all of our effort and scientific resources towards building defense systems to protect us from all that seeks to harm us. Perhaps we consider the universe to be neutral, devoid of purpose or meaning, neither friendly nor unfriendly – hence Einstein’s well-known description of a randomized cosmic order (“God playing dice with the universe”).

However, if we decide that the universe is inherently friendly – that is, if we trust that there is some underlying order and goodness to the systems around us, then we may actually feel empowered to try to understand our universe. Power and safety is a result of our efforts not to protect ourselves by building up walls but instead to trust and connect with others, working to understand the world around us.

These ideas reminded me of a recent TED talk led by Marc Slors entitled “Cultivating Trust,” which our faculty watched as part of our Learning Lunch series held each month at The Willows.

Slors acknowledges that while trust involves making ourselves vulnerable to others and all kinds of potential disappointments and calamities, it is also a vital component of successful human communities. In any workplace, people need to be able to trust others in order to focus their cognitive abilities on the work they are responsible for – as a teacher, I trust that our facilities manager keeps our campus safe so that I can devote my time to understanding how best to help students learn. Slors argues that trusting gives us the freedom to be present with the work at hand, as opposed to worrying about all that could possibly go wrong throughout our day.

From this point of view, trusting is ultimately an act of empowerment. Consider various relationships that exist within our school community. Parents trust teachers and the leadership at the school to provide the right conditions for learning to take place. They trust that we will teach the whole child, that teachers will strive to see their child and hear their interests and needs. They trust that they have a partner with open lines of communication. Though they make themselves vulnerable by sharing their children with us each day, by putting trust in us we are able to build stronger partnerships that support students; we feel empowered to join forces together.orig_photo391775_3846309

Also, teachers at the Willows trust their students. In my maker class, I trust that (under my supervision) students will capably utilize a wide variety of tools that could prove harmful if used carelessly – hot glue guns, hand saws, soldering irons, even the internet! Teachers at our school trust that students are competent and capable of taking on problems put before them, or, even better, problems that they come up with on their own. Willows students are not passive learners waiting to be spoon-fed information but in fact feel empowered to construct meaning and think deeply alongside teachers who are guiding the way.

One message we also try to consistently deliver from Developmental Kindergarten to eighth grade is that students need to trust themselves. Children need to feel confident to take risks and potentially make mistakes in order to develop into the kinds of learners described above. Trust in oneself surely instills power, in school and beyond.

March Madness: Non-NCAA edition

It’s fitting that we have noted New York Times bestselling columnist author Frank Bruni coming to speak to our school community this week about his latest book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be. While many associate the term “March Madness” with the upcoming NCAA college basketball tournament, anyone who works in education knows that a different kind of madness grips parents around this same time of year: admissions madness.pbcover-whereyougo

Acceptance letters go out to new students at The Willows this week, and anxious parents nationwide await word from both K-12 independent schools and universities as well, crossing fingers in anticipation not just for acceptance at a school but also for the implied promise for the future this acceptance carries with it.

In his book, Bruni tries to reassure anxious parents that life will carry on even if one’s first choice is not realized. He quotes Anthony Carnevale, Georgetown’s Director of Center on Education and the Workforce:

Life is something that happens slowly, and whether or not they go to their first choice isn’t that important…It’s not the difference between Yale and jail. It’s the difference between Yale and the University of Wisconsin or some other school where they can get an excellent education.

While I hope this anxiety does not consume our middle school students and parents at The Willows applying out for secondary school, the reality for some is that not getting one’s first choice – or worse yet, not getting your second or third choice either – can be panic-inducing. Bruni also reminds us that this anxiety isn’t just for parents of children over the age of 10, recounting familiar stories of status-obsessed New Yorkers clamoring to get into the perfect preschool, heartbroken when their child does not “perform” adequately during his or her school visit.

Unknown unknowns

What all of this boils down to for me is, whether we are talking about admission into the best preschool, lower school, secondary school or university, the focus is squarely on the future, and the implied promise that accompanies acceptance to a school.

But the future is ultimately unknown, and a parent’s list of unknown unknowns (to paraphrase former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s famous line) is endless: what kind of people will our children grow up to be? Will they have steady, secure employment (or a job at all)? All parents want the best for their children, and in the face of a scary, uncertain future modern parents especially seem compelled to obsess over what they can do today to make tomorrow (i.e. 8-12 years later) easier for their sons and daughters.

Bruni’s book is meant to remind us that parents have always had to wrestle with worrying over their children’s future. Throughout, he writes compassionately about the plight of children and parents swept up in all of this madness. I’d really like to believe that his message will help assuage the anxiety of the professional class and its progeny. However, no one can deny the power of an elite degree, and competition still drives so much of our society. Bruni’s argument is well researched and articulated clearly – will it be heard by those who need to hear it most?