With both of my kids in the middle of SOL tests, I am getting yet another lesson on how different they are.
I'm not sure my oldest son, 11-year-old Tommy, would even remember he had a test if I didn't remind him. It's not that he doesn't care about school -- although he certainly would benefit from caring a bit more -- it's just how he moves through life. He almost floats, head often in the clouds, which allows him to face new challenges without fear but wreaks havoc on his ability to plan ahead or focus. "It's just one test, Mommy," he'll tell me if I start nagging him to study. "Can I go play basketball?"
Then there's Sammy, almost 9, who inherited my tendency toward perfectionism. Thankfully he's not close to the point of having such bad test anxiety that he gets physically ill, like one girl at their school, but he definitely gets nervous. "It's a really important test, Mommy," he told me before taking his history SOL last week. "Can you quiz me?"
The problem for me is I think Tommy and Sammy are both right. My boys are really young, and they shouldn't worry that their results on 3rd and 5th grade tests will change the course of their lives. On the other hand, the SOLS are important within the education system they're part of, and the kids should do their best to prepare and earn good scores.
So what do I do? Whisper in Tommy's ear that he'd better take tests like these seriously if he wants to be a successful student now and in the future... and then whisper in Sammy's ear that if he doesn't do well everything will be just fine?
Luckily, there's some advice from the U.S. Department of Education and local teachers that applies to both of my kids, and a lot of it is simply taking care of their physical needs:
-- Make sure kids get to school on time each day, making the mornings as little rushed as possible.
-- Make sure kids get plenty of healthy foods, eat a good breakfast, exercise regularly and get enough sleep.
-- Keep their school supplies well-stocked throughout the year.
-- At the start of a test, teach students to read the directions and questions twice, and then double-check answers before handing it in. It's also a good idea to answer all the easy questions first rather than risk getting stuck on a hard one.
-- Encourage good study habits all year. Kids who do their homework and assignments on time and study a little bit each night do much better than last-minute crammers, whether they suffer from test anxiety or not.
-- Praise effort more than grades or test scores. Some kids can easily earn an A; other kids have to fight for a C. If they're trying hard, make sure they know you recognize that.
For anxious kids:
-- Just listen to them, without getting impatient. Don't dismiss their fears or shut them down by saying, "Stop worrying, you'll do fine." That will likely make them feel anxious and ashamed of feeling anxious.
-- Don't constantly repeat the "You'll do great!" line. Kids might feel even more pressure.
-- Help them accept their mistakes. It's OK if they don't know the answers to every question. Sammy came home from his SOL upset because it had included "all of these questions on Pocahontas" that hadn't been on his study guide. In talking to him more, I think I've determined there was just one question on Pocahontas, but it loomed large in his mind because he had gotten it wrong. If a child brings home a bad grade on occasion, that's fine too. Look at their performance over a longer period of time, which they should be doing as well. You also can talk to them about famous people who overcame mistakes or errors, from politicians to scientists to athletes.
-- Give kids positive messages to repeat to themselves: "I've studied hard, so I'm ready for this test!" or "Every test is making me better at taking tests. If this one is hard, I'll be stronger for the next one."
-- Teach them deep breathing techniques they can use during tests: inhale deeply, from the belly, and breathe out slowly. Picture yourself breathing in calm and pushing out stress. Taking five such breaths at the start of a test can be very calming.
-- If anxiety is severe enough to cause physical problems or repeated failures on tests, talk to a teacher or school counselor about getting help.
We have more SOL tests coming up next week. Thankfully, Sammy seems to be relaxing after getting the first round out of the way, so I imagine more of my energy will go toward encouraging Tommy to see that he owes it to himself, and all the teachers who have helped him, to put some effort into the final tests of his elementary school career (since he's obsessed with sports, I'll also remind him that part of being a successful athlete is being a successful student.).
That, and cooking both of them a good breakfast.