Helping Your Gifted Student Survive (and Thrive) During the Season of High-Stakes Testing: Fourteen Tips for Before, During, and After the Test

Feeling the Pressure

Children of all ages are starting to feel the pressure that surrounds this season of high-stakes testing.

Gifted children, in particular, may feel a great deal of pressure to achieve at the highest levels on these tests. Sometimes the pressure is self-imposed, stemming from an internal desire to live up to their "gifts." Other times, it comes from a longing to please their teachers and parents.

And, unfortunately, some school cultures, even while trying to put a positive spin on the mandatory testing, have caused our children to worry that they will somehow underperform or let their peers down if they make mistakes on the tests. I've recently even heard of schools creating test-based competitions--children with the highest scores are rewarded with parties and prizes!

While no doubt, these efforts to increase test engagement are coming from a positive place of trying to motivate the students body as a whole to try to perform well on the tests, they end up increasing the pressure exponentially for gifted students, who are looked to as the people who are "supposed" to get the best scores. After all, they're so smart, right?  And, even if you're lucky enough to be teaching in a place that doesn't place much importance on the tests, even if you give your best efforts to minimize testing pressure, your gifted students will STILL sense the weight of the tests, because of the nature of their giftedness and heightened sensitivity to external stimuli.

Teachers and parents can try to say that the test scores don't matter, but if there is even a hint of inauthenticity to those statements, you can bet your gifted child or student is going to pick up on it. 

I know that my gifted students, particularly my fourth and fifth graders, consistently expressed their worry about upcoming state tests, despite the daily reminders that these high-stakes tests were largely worthless, only measuring accurately the average income levels of students' parents, not a big deal. They had gotten the notion in their heads that if they were to underperform on the exams, they wouldn't be gifted anymore, and then they wouldn't be able to come to my classes any longer.

Can you imagine if that were true? Sorry, kids. You can't come to the place where your academic (and social-emotional) needs are truly being met. It's not illogical thinking, though, is it? After all, didn't a test get them into "the program"? So, we had many, many talks about how the results of the tests would be used, and how none of those uses included being used to disqualify them from being labeled as gifted.*

Telling the children these facts helped to ease some of their fears a little, but there are some important things we need to know about our gifted children as they face any testing scenario.  I also have some suggestions for ways to help your anxiety-ridden child cope with their worries. 

Tried and True Tips for Facing Testing Fears and Moving Forward

There are some important and helpful things you can do to help ease your gifted child's fears. Many of these are things I did in my gifted classroom with my students, so I've learned from experience that they really do help!

Before the Test

1. First, no matter whether it is a high-stakes testing scenario or a pop quiz in your math class, it is important to acknowledge that the anxiety that your gifted student is experiencing is real. When a person experiences this type of anxiety, it can cause the body's fight or flight response to be triggered, which in essence renders the brain's critical thinking areas far less effective than normal. It's important that we recognize these real fears and real physiological responses instead of trying to minimize them or brush them off. 

2.  Help your gifted student become familiar with the test. It's easy to assume that your students already know the answers to many of these questions, but remember, when they're stressed, their critical thinking skills aren't functioning like they normally do! Allow your children to ask every. single. question. they have, and please don't make them feel silly for asking (see number one above). Here are some examples of things you may want to discuss about the test itself.

  • What is the format of the test? What types of questions will they encounter?
  • How long will the test take? How many questions will there be?
  • Is it timed or do they have as long as they need to finish?
  • Can they skip questions and come back? 
  • If the test is on a computer, what will happen if the computer has a problem? 
  • If the test is a pencil/paper test, what will happen if they forget a pencil? What if the pencil breaks? 
3. See if you can help the child identify their own internal dialogue--what are they fearful of exactly? What is that pesky little voice inside saying to them? Once you get to the bottom of what they're telling themselves, work toward changing the dialogue to something more positive.** Below are some examples of common things I heard my gifted students say:
  • "If I don't pass the test, I might get kicked out of the gifted program at school." 
  • "What if Johnny Gifted-Peer gets a higher score than me?" Or worse, "What if Suzy Not-Gifted-Peer gets a better score than me?" 
  • "I'm afraid that my mom (teacher, dad, etc.) will be disappointed in me if I mess up."
  • "I'm not good at taking tests."

4. If the child is being tested on something he or she finds challenging, it's a great time to teach proper study skills like making flash cards, recopying notes, devising mnemonic devices, etc.  If they feel really well prepared for the tests, the anxiety can be lessened. 

5. Help your student practice asking for help if they need it. I know that this can be particularly difficult (I know this from my own experience! I didn't (and still don't) like asking for help). I found it helpful to develop a quiet signal that a student and I could use if they needed help. Sometimes it was as simple as placing a sticky note in a particular area on their desk or computer, maybe it was a baseball-coach-style ear tug or nose wiggle. Whatever it was, if the student was willing to ask for help after we minimized the risk of drawing attention to themselves for needing help, I was a happy camper. 

6. Prepare physically for the test. This includes getting proper sleep, nutrition, and exercise in the days leading up to the test. 

During the Test

1. Have your student or child use breathing strategies to help ease the body's physical response.
2. Allow (and encourage) them to take breaks as needed. 
3. Make them hydrate! There is scientific evidence that water acts like a mental lubricant--increasing brain efficiency and function. 
4. Allow your gifted student to keep a small stress ball or other small comfort object nearby or in a pocket.
5. Help your child decide on a short phrase, an affirmation of sorts, to visualize or whisper as needed.  

After the Test

1. Debrief, but focus on the positive. What do they feel went well? (Teachers, be careful. Unfortunately, you will need to be sure you stick to generalities here. If you've ever proctored a high-stakes test, you know that the testing protocols are usually QUITE strict about not allowing any discussion of the tests' content whatsoever.) 
2. Rest. Test-taking is difficult for everyone, but it can really take a physical toll on children with high levels of anxiety. Allow time for your students to rest and relax. They need it (and you probably do, to!)
3. Move on. It's over now. There's nothing left to do. Remind your gifted child that they've done their absolute best and no matter what, your opinion of them won't change. Remind them that you're proud of them for facing their fears and getting through a tough time in their life!

Phew! You made it to the bottom of the post! And good thing you did, because I have a FREEBIE just for you! Click on the image on the right to sign up for access a handout that contains the tips above written in student-friendly language. It's ready for you to print and use, then send home for parents to read with their kids! *Just to be clear, by clicking to get the freebie (and instant access to the growing collection of free resources in my library of subscriber exclusives), you're also agreeing to be added to my email list, where I'll send occasional messages with fresh ideas, tips, and other resources straight to your inbox. You can unsubscribe at any time.*

Thank you so VERY much for reading. I do appreciate it! If you like what you're reading, don't miss a post! Click the subscribe button on the right to get emails with my blog posts delivered right to your inbox!
*Thankfully, in Ohio the law protects children from the removal of the gifted label. The law is written so that once they are identified as gifted, they will always carry the gifted label.*

**It's important to recognize that while you can help a child practice changing the dialogue, they may really benefit from a visit to the school counselor or therapist who is better equipped to handle these things. Don't be afraid to refer the child for more help!

Tips for taming test anxiety (because even gifted kids get anxious), by Gail Post, Ph.D.
Keeping a Healthy Perspective on Stress and Test Anxiety, by Vidisha Patel
Gifted Students...Scared of Tests? Part 2, by Christopher Taibbi, M.A.T.
Why Your Brain Needs Water, by Joshua Gowin Ph.D


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