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Mental Health, Students, & Test Taking

Mental Health, Students, & Test Taking

“It’s going to be on the test!” How many times did we hear this phrase when we were in school? The culture surrounding testing is emotionally charged for parents, students, teachers, and administrators. School performance scores are a nearly direct reflection of students’ standardized test scores. If that wasn’t enough, the rules surrounding testing keep changing! High stakes; not high stakes; alternative testing; do we include all scores? And our children, who soak up our emotions like a tiny sponge, hear and feel what we broadcast about the stress of testing.


“We actually took our son to a therapist because he was experiencing some anxiety tied to math.” recalled mom and teacher Megan S. “This took shape in the form of tears at homework that would start practically at the sight of his math homework. Even after being given a break to play outside, he still would become debilitated at the thought of working on it. Those can be some telling signs of testing or performance anxiety that extends beyond a simple lack of desire to do schoolwork.

I think it's important to note that this was despite tremendous skill level in the subject. He scored in the 98th percentile of his school in math but nonetheless felt pressure from his teachers, who would often make wide, whole-class statements meant to encourage everyone to improve.

Testing anxiety can happen to students at any and all achievement levels! To him, the motivation was interpreted as added pressure to continue building upon already-impressive scores. He would mention that he was bad at math, and, while we wouldn't normally make comparisons, we found ourselves, as parents, pointing out that he was outscoring his classmates. Only when he saw the data did he trust that he's actually ‘good at math.’”


Surveys have suggested that there is an increase of mental health related issues among students while they are taking tests. Teachers have also reported that there’s an increase in fear of failure and depression due to today’s system of testing. Veteran teacher Layla Dupuy reported, “I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of standardized testing. I have experienced testing meltdowns with third graders, who were confused by spending long periods of time filling in tiny bubbles. I have comforted eighth graders as they sobbed uncontrollably when they received the news that they failed the LEAP test, which meant they also failed the eighth grade. I have celebrated with high school students upon learning that they have passed their End of Course tests or achieved their personal best on the ACT.

Logically, I understand the need for standardized tests for evaluating student performance. Where the problem lies is in the emphasis we put on these results. How a student performs on one test on one day should not be the sole measure of his or her potential for future success. That being said, this is the current state of things.”


Local therapist, Tara Dixon shared, “We are teaching children (and society) that high stakes testing is the most important indicator of academic achievement. What testing cannot and does not measure are skills such as relationship building, communication skills, perseverance, and team work....all factors that are valuable skills in successful adulthood. If academic self-efficacy is determined by one score on one test, we are taking the chance of minimizing the importance of traits such as creativity, appreciation for human connection, independent problem solving, and big picture decision making. Are we telling children that testing is the only way to achieve success? When we highlight unique strengths, we give kids the opportunity to succeed in their own story, not just the one laid out for them.”


“Test don't CAUSE anxiety,” shared local therapist Star Marks. “They can make you nervous, or worried. The conversation needs to start with this as the baseline, is your child nervous versus anxious? Another factor to consider is the household level of anxiety surrounding test taking and the pressure that is put on the student. Do we have realistic expectations for our children and are they based on individual strengths vs universal expectations? A little nervousness is healthy and pushes us to try a bit beyond our comfort levels, but children who have anxiety disorders can be triggered by testing expectations.”

Stress and anxiety can start at an early age and can lead to health problems later in life. Introducing high levels of stress so early in a child’s life could be putting them at risk for adulthood depression and anxiety, obesity, heart disease, increased chance of chronic pain, and gastrointestinal problems. Mental health therapist Amanda Morris shared, “There's more pressure than ever on students to achieve high test scores, and test anxiety is common.”

Testing can exacerbate underlying issues, but cannot in itself be the root cause of anxiety disorders, autism, eating disorders, ADD, ADHD, ODD or other behavioral, health, or mental health diagnoses.


How can a parent know if their child is experiencing undue stress because of testing? Dixon continued, “ I always ask parents to categorize their child’s symptoms. You are looking for physical, emotional, and behavioral. Generally, you want to explore each separately to rule out a biological issue. When they are present together is when you know you’re truly dealing with anxiety. And most of the time you can trace them back like dominos. Example: John is presented a reading passage, he immediately experiences fear of failure (emotional), he begins to having racing thoughts and heartbeat (physical), and therefore squirms in his chair excessively (behavioral). Because behavioral symptoms are easier to notice, children are often scolded for that one symptom. We, as adults, focus on the end result of getting the passage read. However in order to decrease the behavioral component, you must back up and teach the child to address the first emotional one.”

Morris added, “Parents should trust their gut and investigate any changes in their child's behavior. The best way to stay attuned to your child's emotional state is to have daily time together to connect without distractions like electronics.”


“Ideally,” Morris concluded, “There should mental health screening on all children at regular intervals throughout the school year beginning in Kindergarten or even Pre-K, to both identify issues and monitor them over time. Children don't yet have the language to say ‘I'm anxious’ or ‘I'm struggling with depression,’ but their behavior tells the story. Identifying the signs of emotional distress could be life-changing for a child or teenager. Untreated emotional problems will directly impact a child's academic performance and social functioning.

Teaching kids mindfulness strategies like meditation can improve focus and reduce test anxiety and overall stress. Parents can also consult a mental health professional in the community who specializes in working with children and adolescents, particularly if the school doesn't have one on staff.”

Published in Baton Rouge Parents Magazine.


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