How to Reduce Testing Stress for a Safe and Productive Spring Semester

March 2020

Standardized testing can bring on feelings of stress and anxiety.1-4 Students often suffer from poor sleep and impaired decision-making when stress is high, and may even put themselves in unsafe situations attempting to reduce stress.5-9 Below, we discuss these relationships and outline tools you can incorporate into class time to help students decrease stress. We encourage educators to share this information with students so they can stay healthy and safe throughout the semester, including spring break!

Stress and Health

Stress and anxiety lead to increased agitation, which often leads to decreased quantity or quality of sleep. Fatigue associated with reduced sleep produces cognitive impairment, such that it takes longer for our brain to work through decision-making processes.10 In this state, we may make poor or unhealthy decisions, the consequences of which may further increase stress, creating a cyclical, unhealthy pattern.

Students often suffer from poor sleep and impaired decision-making when stress is high, and may even put themselves in unsafe situations attempting to reduce stress.

Poor sleep and heightened stress can also diminish immune function, making us more susceptible to illness.11,12 Illness-related absences cause students to miss valuable instruction time, which compounds existing stress. During testing season, missing class time may result in inadequate test preparation, further elevating anxiety and increasing potential for students to seek stress reduction in unhealthy ways.

Stress and Risky Decisions

The decision-making process involves weighing the costs and benefits of our actions. When stress is high and sleep quality is impaired, we may fail to thoroughly consider potential consequences of our actions and increase our potential of making risky decisions.13 Although poor decisions can be made any time, spring break presents unique opportunities for risk and unhealthy behaviors.

Spring break often represents a time of partying accompanied by alcohol and/or drugs. This is especially visible and present for older high school students.14,15 Students may use alcohol or drugs in an attempt to decrease stress, but ultimately cause themselves more harm by doing so—again, further elevating stress in an unhealthy, cyclical pattern.

Supporting Stress Reduction

    Mindfulness and meditation help reduce stress.16 The following resources can assist with implementing mindfulness, meditation, or quiet time in a classroom setting:
  • The George Lucas Educational Foundation offers practical tips for applying meditation practice in classrooms.
  • Mindful, a non-profit organization aimed at incorporating meditation in workspaces for all ages, emphasizes benefits of this practice such as improving students’ behavior regulation and academic performance.
  • Mindful Schools summarizes current research on the effects of mindfulness meditation on brain development and stress reduction. They offer mindfulness resources and trainings for educators who want more information on using these techniques in their classrooms.
    Grounding techniques are another tool used to alleviate anxiety. Grounding techniques are often practiced in cognitive behavioral therapy to calm anxious or stressed individuals so they can process their environment more clearly.20 The following resources are worksheets that can be used to implement grounding techniques:
  • Winona State University’s department of Integrated Wellness offers a worksheet that walks you through three types of grounding exercises.
  • The National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma, and Mental Health offers a worksheet for grounding, emotional regulation, and relaxation for both children and parents.
  • The Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District created a worksheet for sensory-processing grounding techniques that can be easily implemented in a classroom of younger children.

Stress-Free Spring Break Ideas

Community gardens build connections by encouraging community members to spend time learning new skills together. Support networks created through forming new relationships can moderate high stress levels.24 The benefit of spending time in nature is also great for additional stress reduction. Visit the American Community Garden Association website to find information about local community gardens in your area.

Support networks created through forming new relationships can moderate high stress levels.

Local libraries often offer free activities open to the community. Simply spending quiet time in a library creates a productive, mindful space in which to calm anxiety. For example, the San Marcos Public Library offers a Story Time, a Teen Advisory Board meeting, a Book Club, a LEGO Mania Club, and crafts for a variety of age groups.27 Visit the USAGov Libraries and Archives website to find your local library.

Get outside. Sunshine and fresh air substantially reduce stress. Hiking, biking, or simply eating meals outside with family or friends can help increase vitamin D levels that elevate mood and fortify your immune system. This edition of the Harvard Health Letter explains why spending time outside is a great antidote for testing stress.

References

1 Hodge, G., McCormick, J., and Elliott, R. (1997). Examination-induced distress in a public examination at the completion of secondary schooling. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 67, 185–197.

2 Kouzma, N. M., & Kennedy, G. A. (2004). Self-reported sources of stress in senior high school students. Psychological Reports, 94, 314–316.

3 Kyriacou, C., & Butcher, B. (1993). Stress in year 11 school children. Pastoral Care, 11, 19–21.

4 Putwain, D. W. (2009). Assessment and examination stress in key stage 4. British Educational Research Journal, 35, 391–411.

5 Zeidner, M. (1998). Test anxiety: The state of the art. New York, NY: Plenum Press.

6 Abrams, L. M., Pedulla, J. J., & Madaus, G. F. (2003). Views from the classroom: Teachers’ opinions of statewide testing programs. Theory into Practice, 42, 18 – 29.

7 Barksdale-Ladd, M. A., & Thomas, K. F. (2000). What’s at stake in high-stakes testing: Teachers and parents speak out. Journal of Teacher Education, 51, 384 – 397.

8 Jones, B. D., & Egley, R. J. (2004). Voices from the frontlines: Teachers’ perceptions of high-stakes testing. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 12. Retrieved from http://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/194

9 Segool, N. K., Carlson, J. S., Goforth, A. N., Von Der Embse, N., & Barterian, J. A. (2013). Heightened test anxiety among young children: Elementary school students' anxious responses to high stakes testing. Psychology in the Schools, 50(5), 489–499

10 Stermensky, G., II, & Moss, R. R. (2017). Cognitive symptoms and effects of stress. Stress in the Modern World: Understanding Science and Society,1, 95–10.

11 Besedovsky, L., Lange, T., & Born, J. (2012). Sleep and immune function. Pflugers Archiv: European Journal of Physiology, 463(1), 121–137.

12 Kurien, P. A., Chong, S. Y. C., Ptáček, L. J., & Fu, Y.-H. (2013). Sick and tired: How molecular regulators of human sleep schedules and duration impact immune function. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 23(5), 873–879.

13 Reyna, V. F., Estrada, S. M., DeMarinis, J. A., Myers, R. M., Stanisz, J. M., & Mills, B. A. (2011). Neurobiological and memory models of risky decision making in adolescents versus young adults. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 37(5), 1125–1142

14 Patrick, M. E., Schulenberg, J. E., Martz, M. E., Maggs, J. L., O’Malley, P. M., & Johnston, L. D. (2013). Extreme binge drinking among 12th-grade students in the United States prevalence and predictors. JAMA PEDIATRICS, 167(11), 1019–1025.

15 Dai, H. (2019). Trends in single, dual, and poly use of alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana among US high-school students: 1991–2017. American Journal of Public Health, 109(8), 1138–1140.

16 Goldberg, S. B., Knoeppel, C., Davidson, R. J., & Flook, L. (2020). Does practice quality mediate the relationship between practice time and outcome in mindfulness-based stress reduction? Journal of Counseling Psychology, 67(1), 115–122

17 Kuranishi, A. (2016, October 28). Pause, refocus, assess: Meditation in the classroom. George Lucas Educational Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/pause-refocus-assess-meditation-classroom-adam-kuranishi

18 Gerszberg, C. O. (2017, January 25). Bringing mindfulness into schools. Mindful. Retrieved from https://www.mindful.org/mindfulness-in-education/

19 Mindful Schools. (2019). Research on Mindfulness. Retrieved from https://www.mindfulschools.org/about-mindfulness/research-on-mindfulness/

20 Wells, A. (2009). Metacognitive therapy for anxiety and depression. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

21 Navajits, L. M. (2016, November 21). Grounding: Create personal calm. Winona State University Department of Integrated Wellness. Retrieved from https://www.winona.edu/resilience/Media/Grounding-Worksheet.pdf

22 National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma, and Mental Health. (2014). Exercises for grounding, emotional regulation, and relaxation for children and their parents. Retrieved from http://www.nationalcenterdvtraumamh.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Exercises-for-Grounding-Emotional-Regulation-Relaxation-Final.pdf

23 Honaker, D. (2013). Sensory-processing grounded interventions supplement handouts. Carollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District. Retrieved from https://cfbisd.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/15Settle_Down_Get_Ready_handout.pdf

24 Chao, R. C.-L. (2011). Managing stress and maintaining well-being: Social support, problem-focused coping, and avoidant coping. Journal of Counseling & Development, 89(3), 338–348.

25 American Community Gardening Association. Retrieved from https://www.communitygarden.org/

26 USA.gov. (2018, April 6). Libraries and archives. Retrieved from https://www.usa.gov/libraries

27 City of San Marcos. Public library calendar of events. Retrieved from http://www.sanmarcostx.gov/calendar.aspx?CID=31

28 Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School. (2010, July 2). A prescription for better health: Go alfresco. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/a-prescription-for-better-health-go-alfresco