Teaching with Empathy: SEL During Testing

The first time I truly realized the impact of standardized testing on my students’ emotional health is burned into my memory. I was just finishing a successful testing session: all students focused on the task, finished on time, and remained quiet while their peers finished testing.

I was feeling pretty good about the whole process until I walked around the room to clean up scratch paper. One student had left behind a piece of paper that I thought was scratch paper. I was wrong. That left-behind scrap of paper was a doodle of a cute unicorn-a cute, crying unicorn.

The sad unicorn had the words, “when you try your best and you still fail” scribed around the doodle in fat bubble letters. Crying unicorn! “You try your best...and...still fail”! Bubble letters! It broke my heart and opened my mind to how testing outcomes can crush our most fragile learners: the learners who care about how well they do in school, the learners who believe us when we tell them that a test can measure their cognitive abilities. Oh. My. Goodness.

After this experience, I had to take stock of my professional practices during testing and shift my focus to supporting students’ emotional wellbeing during testing.

Empathy in Action

For some students, testing only happens three times a year for local standardized assessments like NWEA and once a year for state assessments. While those testing sessions can be stressful and taxing, the students who only test at those points have a light lift compared to the students whose test scores and academic performance place them in tier 2 and tier 3 academic interventions. Often, tiered interventions involve bi-weekly performance assessments to guide individualized instruction.

Those bi-weekly assessments for tier 2 and tier 3 academic interventions provide teachers and administrators with valuable data about student growth, but bi-weekly assessments can also force students to endure the stress of high-stakes testing over and over throughout the school year. Want to know more about the effects of test anxiety? Click here for a handy PDF you can use!

Now, imagine you are a student who is tested every other week to determine how well you are learning. What if your test results show that you are not growing appropriately? What would that mean for you as a student and as a person? What if you were asked to quietly watch, month after month, as your peers received tickets to movies, ice cream socials, and free time for their growth while you had to stay behind and work? How would that make you feel?

Considering these important questions forces us to shift our lens regarding how testing should be handled in our classrooms. There is never a more appropriate time to practice empathy in the classroom than during testing.

Interested in learning some actionable practices that can help support your anxious testers? Read on!

5 Tips

  • Set aside time to reflect and decompress five minutes before a testing session. Studies show that students who journal about the test before testing have better testing outcomes. Allow students to reflect on their goals, center themselves, and transition into a thinking zone. Here are two journal prompts you can use before testing.

  • Encourage students to practice self-management skills such as deep breathing and muscle relaxation when testing becomes overwhelming.

  • Acknowledge and discuss test anxiety in the social-emotional lessons leading up to the test. It can also help to share the beneficial aspects of stress as a means of empowering students who are overwhelmed by stress. Help start a discussion about the benefits of productive stress in this article.

  • Have fidgets and other refocusing strategies available to students in the testing room.

  • Set the stage for learning by preparing a calm testing environment free from distractions. This includes sights, sounds, textures, and smells. Be careful of making big changes to the testing room, however, because changes can rattle highly sensitive children.

Summing Up

Another school year has started, and, for schools using localized adaptive standardized assessments such as NWEA and STAR, assessment season is upon us. As we prepare our students for testing, it’s important to remind them to do their best. It’s also important to put ourselves in the shoes of our students. Whether you use the suggestions mentioned here or develop your own strategies for supporting the social and emotional needs of our learners during testing, planning for testing with empathy and compassion will help all our students manage test anxiety

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Cherry, K. (2021, April 2). Test anxiety can make it difficult to do well on exams. Verywell Mind. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-test-anxiety-2795368#citation-6.

Christopher S. Rozek, G. R. (2021, September 28). Reducing socioeconomic disparities in the STEM pipeline through student emotion regulation: Supporting information. PNAS. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://www.pnas.org/content/suppl/2019/01/10/1808589116.DCSupplemental.

Ras, B. R. (2019, May 22). 7 surprising ways some stress is actually good for you. Goodnet. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://www.goodnet.org/articles/7-surprising-ways-some-stress-actually-good-for-you.

Rozek, C. S., Ramirez, G., Fine, R. D., & Beilock, S. L. (2019, January 29). Reducing socioeconomic disparities in the stem pipeline through Student Emotion Regulation. PNAS. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://www.pnas.org/content/116/5/1553.