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Don't let kids stress out over annual state exams

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By Theresa Goffredo
Herald Writer
  • Kim Carney / The Herald

If you're the parent of an elementary- or middle school student, you might be noticing some signs of stress in your child.
Perhaps your child is complaining of nausea, stomachaches or headaches, or maybe has trouble falling asleep or wakes in the middle of the night.
Maybe his skin breaks out in red blotches. Or even worse, she no longer wants to go to school.
That might be because these kids are in the midst of taking the MSP -- Measurements of Student Progress -- the state's standardized test for all students in third through eighth grades. The MSP is given to test a student's knowledge in reading, math, writing and science. In high school, students take a different standardized test.
What can a parent do to help a child who is feeling stressed-out by this exam?
Clinical psychologist Dr. Paul Schoenfeld, the director of The Everett Clinic Center for Behavioral Health, said the first thing a parent needs to remember is this: It's the teacher taking the test, not the child.
"It's really important to explain to kids that these tests are to see whether the teacher is doing his or her job, and that takes the onus off of them," Schoenfeld said, adding that these tests can sometimes carry a lot of weight for teachers whose performance or compensation might be based on the results.
"We as parents can tell the child it's not about them, they don't have to be concerned, it's not their problem. You are not responsible here," Schoenfeld said. "You do the best you can, but how you do is unimportant."
The second point parents need to remember is to remind the kids that the value of this test is to help your teachers figure out what to help you with.
"We can tell our kids it's not like you get an A, B, C, D. You either know the material or you don't. This is not a pass-fail. It's all about whether or not the teacher needs to work a little bit harder to help you understand the material."
Schoenfeld said the stress these kids bring home is coming from the school, and the teachers who may be emphasizing that the students be successful.
At certain schools in the Everett School District, the focus is more on the MSP as an assessment tool.
Shelley Petillo, principal at Gateway Middle School, in her newsletter to staff recently pointed out that "the most important thing about the MSP is that they just 'show what they know.'
"We will set the tone for our students, and we will help to minimize the stress of the upcoming testing," Petillo wrote.
No matter how stressed or not a child might be, research has shown that individuals respond differently to stress: Schoenfeld calls it the difference between worriers and warriors.
Schoenfeld said there are some genetics involved when there's one kind of kid who thrives on the pressure and another kind who is more worried about what others will think if they don't perform well.
So for kids who are stressed, whether they are warriors or worriers, Schoenfeld recommends the parents work with kids to make a worry list. This is especially useful if your child is a worrier who might keep things bottled up.
To begin a worry list, the conversation might start out with "so tell me the things you are worried about," and then the list begins:
"I'm worried my teacher will be mad at me."
"I'm worried I'll do badly, and you will be mad at me."
"I'm worried I might forget everything I know."
The list is a good thing to do a couple of hours before bed because it "kind of gets it out," Schoenfeld said.
When the list is complete, the parents can then ask the child what they think they can do to be more comfortable.
Rather than telling them what to do, parents can let the child provide an answer, maybe they would like a cup of hot cocoa before school.
"For parents trying to perform mindful parenting, this helps children really begin to learn how to take care of themselves and at an early age," Schoenfeld said.
Schoenfeld said we as a society tend to overvalue those who are good at high-stress situations. We tend to focus on things like performance instead of hard work.
"Being good test takers and doing well in life, they have nothing to do with each other."
Some things to reassure them might be: "Look, honey, do the best you can. Enjoy yourself. Answer all the questions you know. It's one day of your life and it's not going to be the funnest. "
"Remember, the teacher is taking the test."
Theresa Goffredo: 425-339-3424;
Family Talk
Dr. Paul Schoenfeld's blog is called Family Talk,
Story tags » Education & SchoolsHealthEverettMental health

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