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Test Stress: SEL and Mindfulness Tools

Feeling the stress yet? For so many students and families, the upcoming weeks and accompanying to-do lists can create a "perfect storm." Pick your challenge: holiday prep, making ends meet, coordinating schedules, and travel plans. For students of all ages, the tests, papers, and finals before the December school break can take a low simmer of anxiety to the boiling point.

In fact, stress can impede learning, memory, and performance. Most of us can recall a time or two when our mind simply went blank. "Continual emotional distress can create deficits in a child's intellectual abilities, crippling the capacity to learn," writes Dr. Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.

What tools can we provide students to help manage stress and anxiety? Of course, preparation is key: The note taking, study skills, practice, test taking strategies, and healthy nutritional and sleep habits every day of the school year that create a solid foundation of learning and preparation. Mindfulness, defined as a state of mind: the act of "paying attention on purpose" to the present moment, is important, as well.  The New York Association of School Psychologist test anxiety tool kit outlines ways of helping students to recognize their emotions, relaxation techniques, and positive self-talk as a key strategies. Take a deep breath. Exhale slowly.

For some, mindfulness activities are becoming part of the school day. A recent Washington Post article described the "Mindful Moment Room," at Robert W. Coleman Elementary School in West Baltimore, where mindfulness is an approach for discipline. Students who "misstep or need calming" can go to the Mindful Moment Room to talk with school professionals about their feelings, breathe deeply and practice self-calming. The mindfulness practices help students leave behind the stresses of their lives, problems at home, violence on the streets and conflicts with friends, so they can be ready to learn.

SEL Connections:
The fundamentals of social and emotional learning foster skills to develop tools to manage stress and anxiety. Consider these SEL discussion guides in classrooms and living rooms to help guide students and families toward positive social and emotional health.

Self-Awareness: What are warning signs or symptoms that signal feeling overwhelmed or anxious? Who can help you develop a plan for dealing with stress and anxiety?

Self-Management: How can you practice strategies to abate your stress and anxiety, such as deep breathing, positive and calming mantras, visualizing a positive outcome, or listening to music that may be relaxing? How does that make you feel?

Relationship Skills: When it comes to test preparation, teaching others can be an effective study strategy. How can you take the lead, reach out to peers, and share your strengths, and help each other? Are there others who can help you?

Responsible Decision-Making: What study habits or organizational skills can help you stay on task and avoid feeling overwhelmed by the tasks at hand?  


CASEL Social and Emotional Learning Core Competencies

•  Self-Awareness
•  Self-Management
•  Social Awareness
•  Relationship Skills
•  Responsible
•  Decision-Making

Exercising Mindfulness

A recent article in the Atlantic described a typical start in one New York city school English classroom: Five-minute mindfulness exercises to train student attention, quiet thoughts and regulate emotions. Students count breaths, focus on the sensation of breathing, and visualize thoughts and feelings. "It's just a way to focus [your] mind," says their teacher. According to the article, even the U.S. military has embraced mindfulness as a means of boosting performance and productivity.  
Clearly, it is important to address feelings and statements about anxiety and stress that kids may be feeling. Parents, teachers and students can consider these questions as an approach to creating a more mindful existence: 
  • Are we over-scheduled? Do we have time each day for quiet relaxation?
  • What simple exercises can families do together, like going for a walk or listening to music?
  • Organizing helps to eliminate chaos and frustration. What areas of the home or classroom can be straightened? What clutter can be tossed, recycled, or donated?
  • Can students in your classroom or families work together to create mindful mantras to help focus attention and generate a sense of calm?
  • How do social media and online access add to the constant conversation in your head? How would tuning out and logging off for a good period of time each day help to clear that clutter?


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