Every Brain Deserves a Break

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By Allison Riddle.

As a teacher, May is a polarizing month for me.

On one hand, it signals the final lap in the race to complete the school year. My students and I are like family now, and I enjoy watching them work smoothly together on the last few projects of the year.

On the other hand, May marks the end of an exhausting month of intense standardized testing and directed test prep.

Wait… did I say exhausting? Intense?

Unfortunately, yes. I don’t aim to challenge the validity of standardized testing. I value the information these tests provide, and I use these results each year to inform and improve my own instruction the following year. My issue with testing isn’t the purpose of it. Rather, I am troubled by the climate that is set up within the classroom, school and educational community during these testing windows.

It’s ironic that during a time when we expect students to demonstrate mastery or progress on critical skills, educators, whether aware of it or not, actually place a great amount of stress on our students to perform. Test anxiety for students increases unnecessarily when we intentionally treat ‘testing ‘season’ as a markedly different time in the school year.

Talk about fixing the mindset…No pressure, kids, but do your best… NOW!

Although standardized tests are a more formalized educational experience, we should be preparing students for this event in equal measure throughout the year. For example, we prepare students for problem solving in math by embedding opportunities to analyze mathematical situations with partners each week. In that way problem solving becomes a familiar process that students will approach with confidence, even independently on a test. Why then, with so much importance placed on standardized testing, do we not embed common test taking strategies, brain breaks, and celebrations into our weekly classroom experiences?

As educators, we can improve our approach to standardized testing windows by viewing test prep as an integral part of the school experience all year:

  1. Make A List of Breaks to ‘Pepper In’ All Year

As the school year comes to an end, it is the perfect time for teachers to make a list of the ‘testing season’ stress breakers we have just used so that we can implement these strategies all year long! Why not begin as early as September and ‘pepper in’ test-taking strategies, brain breaks and confidence builders into our weekly instruction?

Teachers use familiar testing season breaks such as:  walking laps, eating treats, taking musical brain breaks, doing breathing exercises, coloring Mandalas, drawing symmetrical shapes, exercising across the body exercises, and many more. Each of these is easily integrated into our own weekly classroom experiences. Modeling these breaks consistently would help students build a ‘tool kit’ of strategies that build student perseverance and confidence. By using these tools all year, students would begin to view testing as a time to “show what you know,” rather than achieve a high score.

  1. Share Suggestions with Parents All Year

Administrators and teachers traditionally emphasize the importance of attendance just prior to testing windows. However, it is equally as imperative that students are in class consistently during the instruction of tested concepts! The same is true for encouraging parents to help their students get plenty of exercise, rest, and a substantial breakfast. Healthy kids learn more, and, in turn, perform better on assessments no matter what time of year those tests are taken.

  1. Build a School Culture of Positive Thinking All Year

Many schools host test week assemblies and class parties. While the intent may be to boost student morale and confidence, the result is often an increase in test awareness and intensified anxiety. How about peppering in these kinds of assemblies and celebrations periodically as opposed to just before testing windows? We should appreciate our students’ efforts while they are learning content as much as while they are demonstrating proficiency.

Certainly all educators would prefer less time is taken for end-of-year assessments. Ironically, we know that during the time students are testing, they are not learning. Nevertheless, as an educational community, we must purposefully communicate the message that we care about students performing their best all year long - in all academic endeavors - not just on standardized tests.
Allison Riddle is the 2014 Utah Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). She teaches 5th grade at Foxboro Elementary School in North Salt Lake, Utah.





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