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Assessments can trigger negative thoughts and feelings, especially when students’ disabilities are related to anxiety—here’s how to help these students address testing anxiety in a healthy way

5 ways to help special education students manage testing anxiety

Assessments can trigger negative thoughts and feelings, especially when students’ disabilities are related to anxiety—here’s how to help students address testing anxiety in a healthy way

Testing anxiety shows itself in different ways for different students. It can range from refusing to do work, crying, hiding in the bathroom, and verbal aggression to physical behavior like flipping tables and desks or hitting school staff. Some students avoid school on test days, and many suffer from symptoms such as stomachaches or headaches.

In special education programs, many of our students’ disabilities are closely related to anxiety, and testing can be a trigger that heightens those negative thoughts and feelings.

It’s a common belief that testing anxiety affects only older students, such as those taking high school or college placement exams. However, testing anxiety affects students of all ages. In fact, studies have shown that test anxiety is actually the worst in the middle grades. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, this anxiety can stem from a fear of failure, negative testing experiences, or feeling unprepared.

Anxiety does not “look” the same for all students, so you have to know when to push students and when to empathize, when to listen, and when to set limits. It is important to reiterate that the entire point of assessment is not to measure who you are by a single score on a single day for a particular area in school, but rather it is to be used as an instrument to gauge progress and direct instruction for more optimal learning.

Here are five strategies to help your students manage testing anxiety. As you consider them, it’s also important to be mindful of how, when, and with whom you implement them, because each student’s needs are unique.

1. Create an overall environment of regular assessment and self-monitoring in your classroom.

One of my goals as a teacher was to create a classroom culture that included normalizing assessment. Educators can do this by teaching a growth mindset and reducing the stigma surrounding failure. I like to do this by encouraging group work and problem solving, leading students to provide the “how” and “why” for their answers, teaching students to support classmates, and letting students fix mistakes. It is also helpful to have students get used to seeing their own data and tracking their own progress, whether on their IEP goals or classroom tests and quizzes. By creating an environment where it is okay to make mistakes, and then helping students track their own growth, you should see assessment anxiety start to decrease.

2. Make sure accommodations and modifications are in place.

Ensure that accommodations are customized based on actual student needs. Not all students with IEPs need extended time or directions read aloud, for example. Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box with accommodations for your students, as long as you are able to be clear about when and where the accommodations need to take place. Make sure IEPs and testing forms are updated with the appropriate accommodations or modifications, and that relevant school staff  understand what is required for certain students.

3. Validate student concerns while putting them in perspective.

I think the worst thing we can do is to minimize students’ concerns around testing anxiety.  Students want to feel understood and that their input has value. Instead, we can help them put the assessment in perspective. Empathize with your students and tell them you understand their concerns. Chat about what they believe would be the absolute worst case scenario if they fail the test. Often just by saying it aloud students will realize their fears are not as bad as they envisioned.  

4. Help students focus on what they can control.

I always tell my students that while they may not have power over everything about an assessment, there are actually a number of things that are within their control. An easy way to explain this is to create a visual concept map or web with your students, with ideas of things they can control that will help them on test day. For example, they can eat a good breakfast, get enough sleep the night before, study in advance, practice self-regulation strategies such as breathing exercises, and organize notes and materials. Then, you can also work on teaching concrete test-taking strategies, such as eliminating multiple choice answers you know are not correct, systematically throughout the school year as mini lessons. These practices reinforce the idea that they are not helpless when faced with a test, but can instead help themselves in many ways.

5. Encourage caregivers to stay positive.

Sometimes caregivers can add to student assessment stress by sharing their negative past academic experiences or current anxiety about their student’s progress. I would see this happen often in math classes, where many parents had their own complex feelings about math and would sometimes project these thoughts onto their children. Here is a resource to share with caregivers to help make them part of the team boosting student morale instead of hindering it. 

Hopefully these strategies will empower you to help your students get through their assessments with less stress. The objective is to illustrate to students that testing is not something to fear, but rather an opportunity to show what you know and discover where you might require some additional review to master the subject matter.

Finally, if you are giving out rewards, such as preferred activities or even items like stickers, make sure they are for finishing the task, not based on scores. One of the worst mishandling of rewards I have seen was when students completed their districtwide progress monitoring assessments and staff decided to give out fun necklaces only to the students who had improved scores. So many factors go into student assessment performance that this is really not an equitable practice. Some of my students in special education were mortified to not earn a necklace to wear around school the rest of the day, which led to more anxiety around testing. Instead, we want assessment experiences to conjure positive memories, so that students can have less worries in the future.

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