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5 Strategies to Bust Test Stress

Reduce testing stress with these techniques

Studies show more pencil chewing happens during testing season than at any other time of the year. 

The first time I administered a standardized test, two of my students became sick from test stress. As I finished reading the directions, a tiny girl raised her hand. Her eyes filled with tears and she told me she was "seeing colors." It turned out, she was suffering from a migraine. Soon after, a boy raised his hand and asked to go to the nurse. He left the classroom quickly, and immediately threw up.

Further Reading: SAT and ACT Test Prep: Help Your Students Succeed on the Exam

I felt angry and helpless, wishing there was something I could do. While teachers spend hours preparing students for standardized testing, little time is dedicated to managing the stress it can cause. And with the typical U.S. student taking 112 mandated standardized tests between kindergarten and 12th grade, we have to help fix this problem. Here are five strategies to help your students combat test stress.

1. Use a Stress-Buster Technique

Educational psychologist and best-selling author Dr. Michele Borba suggests teaching students the "1 + 3 + 10" stress-buster technique. Dr. Borba teaches students, "As soon as you feel your body sending you a warning sign that says you're getting tense, do three things. First, stop and tell yourself: 'Be calm.' That's '1.' Second, take three deep slow breaths from your tummy. That's '3.' Now count slowly to 10 inside your head. That's '10.'"

Teachers can post reminders of the 1 + 3 + 10 strategy around the testing room. The strategy should be practiced frequently before testing begins so students are well-equipped to use this tool when stress during testing occurs.

2. Teach Visualization and Deep Breathing

Deep-breathing techniques are another useful tool for students who experience test stress. Dr. Borba suggests having young students practice deep breathing by using a pinwheel or by blowing bubbles. "Taking a slow, deep breath is an easy way to reduce your stress and let your worries out," Dr. Borba says. "Young kids like to pretend that the bubbles are their worries blowing away."

Dr. Borba suggests having students visualize something that represents calmness to them while using deep breathing. Students could visualize a place, color, person, or object that makes them feel peaceful. Once they've regained a sense of calmness, students can focus better and return to the test.

3. Capitalize on the Benefits of Exercise

On the morning of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment, all students at Cottage Grove Middle School were directed out to the track. For 20 minutes, students walked laps around the track. Then they returned to class and immediately began testing.

In an effort to attain the best scores possible, many schools are trying creative strategies such as exercise immediately before testing. And it's not for nothing—research shows that exercise can improve test scores and reduce stress. For example, a study published in Developmental Neuroscience reported that even small amounts of exercise can lead to improved cognitive performance, which could lead to better testing and higher scores on examinations. The Mayo Clinic also reports that regular aerobic exercise, as well as day-of exercise, can decrease test anxiety.

4. Try Peppermint or Essential Oils

While conflicting reports exist on the effectiveness of peppermint, some say it can reduce students' stress and improve performance. Many schools (including my own), believe it's beneficial to offer students peppermint candies before and during standardized tests.

Slightly more controversial, but used by many teachers, are essential oils. Lavender, grapefruit, and spruce oils have been used to reduce test anxiety in the classroom. Because some students may have sensitivities, it is best to check with your administration before using essential oils. While research is not very robust, many teachers swear by the positive effects of oils.

Further reading: 5 Things a Stressed Teacher Thinks About Before Bed

5. Don't Pass on Your Stress

Standardized test scores are used to determine the quality of a school and its teachers. It's no wonder that tests are often more stressful for teachers than they are for students. However, while preparing students for tests, and certainly during testing, teachers must watch their own stress level and portray an even demeanor. Try your best to remain calm, knowing you've done the best you can to prepare your students.

As spring approaches, schools across the country are busy preparing students to take end-of-the-year standardized tests. While there are many strategies to improve test-taking skills, strategies for reducing test stress often go neglected. Learning how to stay calm and confident during an exam is an important part of achieving the best possible results. For a calmer classroom during your next exam, give these techniques a try.