MD Mama

3 tips for managing standardized test stress

It's that time of year again: time for standardized tests. 

It's not just a spring thing, of course. Standardized tests happen all year. But there are more of them in spring, as juniors (like my daughter) take the SAT and ACT, as AP tests get tackled, as Massachusetts students from elementary to high school take the MCAS. One of the research assistants working with us at the hospital is studying for the MCAT, and her stress is nearly palpable. 

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It's the palpable stress thing that worries me as a pediatrician; I see it way too often. There's no escaping standardized tests; as much as we might want them to go away, they aren't going to. It's great to see more colleges becoming "test optional," but the reality is that our kids are stuck with them. 

So our job as adults is to help them manage the inevitable stress. Here are three tips to help. They may seem obvious, but so many of the kids and families I talk to aren't doing them.

1. Prepare

By this, I mostly mean getting to know the test and understanding what it's going to ask. The unknown is far more scary than the familiar. Doing practice test questions and reviewing the material covered on the test can make it far less intimidating.

For the MCAS, schools have this covered (a bit too much, sometimes--it can feel like they are teaching to the test). But for tests like the SAT and ACT, families are often on their own. There's certainly lots of test prep out there; plenty of people are happy to take your money and promise better scores. But there are also inexpensive or even free options, from the prep workbooks offered by the test companies themselves to online courses like Khan Academy's free SAT prep or, a site that offers free SAT, ACT and GRE prep (and parents can track what their kids have done).

It's good to start far enough ahead of time to be able to break the prep down into manageable pieces--how long ahead of time is going to depend on the study habits and time availability of your teen. But in general, months are better than weeks (or days). 

2. Think comforting and comfortable

No matter what we do, this process will be at least a little stressful. So acknowledge that, and do some coddling. Like hot cocoa while studying, or study breaks with cookies, or studying in pajamas in a comfy chair snuggled under a soft blanket. Or silly little surprise presents (a comic book, nail polish, new earphones) tucked into backpacks when the test crunch sets in. Our elementary school does an MCAS breakfast as the kids get started, with parents donating the food, and it's downright festive.

3. Keep perspective

This one is the most important, and it's the hardest. Yes, these tests matter. There's no escaping that. Even the MCAS, which is really more a test of the school than the student, is often used to track students into different groups and classes. But we are all way more than our test results, and it's crucial to make sure that our kids understand that. Overall grades, talents and activities, perseverance and creativity....these all matter just as much as a number on a test. If you work hard, are open all possibilities, take the long view and have a little faith, everything has a way of working out. 

It may not work out the way you planned or expected, but it works out. Sometimes it works out even better than you planned or expected--just in a different way.

So help your child take a deep breath. And make some cookies.

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