5 Ways to Help Kids Master Test Taking

While school testing can be an enjoyable experience for some, for other students (and parents too!) it can be worrisome and downright painful. I remember taking a standardized test annually and yet, it was one of my favourite weeks of the year! Testing week meant special snacks and any extra time was filled with drawing or reading. Plus, we often had extra recess. Of course, there were also weekly and monthly tests, depending on the subject. I didn’t care too much for those!

Whether your child is facing weekly spelling quizzes, tests at the end of a unit, or perhaps a lengthier standardized exam, here are five tips to support their minds and bodies before and during those testing times.

1) Practice Retrieval!

Testing yourself routinely is what researchers call retrieval. Research has shown that while many students re-read their notes, or re-read the material they will be quizzed upon, it’s actually most effective to repeatedly test yourself on the material instead. Practicing retrieval of all concepts learned (not just those you don’t get correct the first time) enhances long term retention, while re-reading notes or the material to be tested creates an illusion of knowledge. 

The key is to practice retention of all material and not just the things you get incorrect. If your child is struggling with math concepts and you know they will be tested at the end of a unit, begin mini-practice tests weekly with all of the material. Include material from prior weeks to continue the work of retrieval. Address errors afterward and keep the short tests weekly until the unit ends. Ask their teacher for material that may support you at home.

2) Sleep, And Sleep Some More!

We all know how rough it is to be sleep deprived. Remember the days of having a baby in your arms? Having recently been diagnosed with sleep apnea, I’m now even more attuned to how a rough night affects my waking hours. Sleep for children and teens is perhaps even more vital.

We have learned from doctors and researches that our body releases cytokines during sleep, which help us fight off illnesses. Growth hormones are also secreted primarily while we are in deep sleep. Any parent will agree through anecdotal evidence that a lack of sleep makes it harder for their children to regulate their moods and emotions! If your child has ADHD, or special needs, the lack of sleep can compound existing challenges. Being able to focus and recall facts and skills needed for testing will also come much easier with a full night’s sleep. On a regular basis consider placing a priority on both the amount and quality of sleep. 

Here are a few ideas that might help you get a few extra zzzz’s:

1) Set routines for sleep.

2) Turn off all screens two hours prior to bedtime.

3) Keep the room temperature moderate and lights low before bedtime.

4) Read with or to your children. Printed books still rank highest as the best pre-sleep activity.

5) Practice mindful relaxation techniques.

6) Try sound machines, weighted blankets, or other sensory tools to help create a soothing environment for your child.

3) Keep it Nutritious

We know nutrition is important to cognitive development and brains are more vulnerable to dietary neglect early in life. Children and teens are rapidly developing both their bodies and brains, and nutrition can have long-term effects (positive and negative) into their adult lives.

Generally speaking, we want our children to have healthy options to eat, and the testing season is no different. Kick start their morning with a high protein meal, accompanied by carbohydrates. Maybe scrambled eggs in whole wheat tortillas, plain greek yogurt with fruit and granola, or oatmeal with nuts and fruit.

Reducing the sugar content at breakfast can be a real challenge. If you find your child is resistant, here are a few ways we “cheat” at our house:

  • Oatmeal with milk and a sprinkle of chocolate chips
  • High protein pancakes/waffles with flavoured greek yogurt on top
  • High protein blueberry muffins (made with lemon greek yogurt instead of milk)

4) Mindfulness

A few years ago the practice of mindfulness kept popping up everywhere. I was surprised to learn that even at my daughter’s midwestern school, she was doing some mindfulness activities focused on breathing. When I heard more about what she was doing, and later learned she had yoga during P.E., I was thrilled. I also couldn’t believe how much she loved it.

Mindfulness activities are different than meditation or prayer. For children in particular, mindfulness activities are a deliberate act of pausing to notice how their body is responding, and taking actions to calm the body. This can come through controlled breathing to lower heart rate, or releasing tension in the muscles. Through these activities, they gain control over their body (and then emotions) when the environment might be too stressful or stimulating. Click here for mindfulness activities from New York Times Bestselling author, Annaka Harris.

Consider implementing these mindfulness activities at home before a test is imminent. By practicing mindfulness in advance, your child can take advantage of being able to self-calm on test day, or any moment that might get their emotions running rampant.

5) Get Moving

During those testing times, it’s important to have kids let loose in a physical way. If you’ve read my blogs before, you know I’m a fan of free play. And I’m not talking about soccer practice!  Give your child space during testing days to use their body in the way they want. Maybe it’s rock climbing, dancing to loud tunes, tumbling on the floor, a short hike or bike ride, or even walking the dog! Let them unwind in a physical way that will help them release stress. And maybe if you join them outdoors, they’ll open up a little more with some gentle questions:

  • What surprised you today?
  • Who did you eat lunch with?  
  • Who really annoyed you today?  
  • When did you feel most happy?

Just remember, most test results won’t make or break their future career you have already selected for them (admit it, you’re thinking about it!). If they don’t do great on one test, it doesn’t mean their chances at being a Nobel Prize Winner are gone. Besides, there is a lot more to life than tests, future earnings, and a corner office. Keep the pressure low, the kindness and compassion high, and the whole world will be better for it.