Standardized tests: a teachable moment for helping kids learn to deal with anxiety in general

Standardized tests are a great teachable moments for helping kids learn to prevent needless anxiety in any aspect of their lives. It’s hard to justify doing anything about mental health in a classroom. Upcoming standardized tests is a good reason, and what you do can pay dividends throughout their lives. 

It’s a great time to teach them how feelings really come about. Most think that what happens to them, and what other people say and do makes them feel the way they do. That’s scientifically inaccurate. 

Teach them the formula for life: 


Thoughts cause feelings, not events. EVENTS can be real or imagined, but it’s what we think about them that really determines how we feel. In the case of anxiety, it’s our THOUGHTS about imagined EVENTS. 
Anxiety is a figment of imagination. It’s about things that could happen, i.e. doing badly on a test, but haven’t happened yet, and often never do. Many people have anxiety disorders. One simple way to define one is that someone spends too much time in their imagination, in the future that hasn’t happened yet, instead of the here and now. 

Teach them to say to themselves or out loud, “That might happen. But it hasn’t happened yet, and might never. But if it does, I’ll deal with it, just like others do, and just like I have other things in the past.” If they memorize these lines like they might those in a play, they can become their automatic response to situations where they start to imagine bad things happening and feel anxious. They can only think or say one thing at a time. If this is what they think or say, it short circuits anxiety, and will as long as they stick with it. 

Teach them the formula for anxiety: CATASTROPHIZE + AWFULIZE = ANXIETY 

First we imagine something bad happening, and then we tell ourselves it’d be awful if that did happen. If we said “So what, who cares?” we wouldn’t feel anxiety. 

AWFUL means the worst possible thing that could happen to us. So open that up for discussion. “Why would it be so awful to do worse than you’d like on such a test? Would it be awful, or just unpleasant? Would it be awful like having cancer or any number of other things that happen to people?” 

Knowing the formula for anxiety creates another option for short circuiting it. Brainstorm some coping statements they could think or say out loud. i.e. “It wouldn’t be the end of the world”. 

You could also work on things they might do to make catastrophizing and awfulizing more likely. For example, it’s understandable and good that they would want to do well on such tests. But if they tell themselves they need to, like they need air, water and food, it will make the possibility of not doing well much scarier, and they’ll be more likely to ruminate about it. Really wanting to do well is more than enough. Thinking they need to, or have to is too much of a good thing. But that’s what the high achievers will do to themselves. 

If they believe they haven’t lived up to expectations in school in some way in the past, they’ll be more likely to imagine they won’t again on the tests. That’s where teaching and encouraging them to have Unconditional Self-Acceptance (USA) can help. Logically convince them that whatever they’ve done in the past is understandable given what their life has been like so far. And encourage them to see whatever they do on the tests will be good enough. 

One way to help them have USA is to have and let them know you will have Unconditional Other Acceptance for them and whatever they do on the tests. That will require that you not think it means much about you as a teacher if they don’t do well.