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Teaching Mindfulness to Reduce Test Anxiety

For many students, spring isn’t just about sunshine and flowers. It’s also a nerve-wracking time to take standardized tests. In order to calm kids down, child psychologist Dr. Phyllis Ohr had some advice. Here's what she has to say about how teaching mindfulness can help!

What is mindfulness, and why is it helpful to teach your students how to practice it? Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a medical scientist who developed the therapeutic meditation practice known as Mindful Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) originally defined mindfulness as a way of “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” That definition may be a little difficult for young children to understand, so Dr. Amy Saltzman, who studies the effects of teaching mindfulness in the classroom, explains to children that mindfulness is a way of “paying attention to your life, here and now, with kindness and curiosity.”

According to Dr. Saltzman, if children focus on the here and now, they are less likely to become anxious about things that have already happened or things that haven’t happened yet. So, learning to be mindful teaches you how to focus on the present in a way that helps you get distance from upsetting thoughts and emotions. If you get distance, you can observe events without immediately reacting to them.

In the last few years, teaching mindfulness has become very popular in schools and has been shown to benefit children by reducing anxiety. This is obviously very important during the stressful weeks of academic testing. In fact, a study conducted by Dr. Saltzman with elementary school children found that after one hour of mindfulness training for eight consecutive weeks children demonstrated decreased anxiety and increased ability for students to orient their attention.

Learning to breathe in a special way is the most popular mindfulness tool. But there are many other fun mindful tools that can be taught to your students keep calm and feel better when they are upset.

Mindful Relaxation

All of these can be done in a large group while your students sit in their seats.

  • Mindful breathing while sitting in a relaxed position: Have your students count to 1 as they breathe in and 2 as they breathe out normally. Start again after 10. Or, you can practice bubble breathing (or balloon breathing) by handing out jars of bubbles (or balloons). Teach your students that they can only make big bubbles (or blow up the balloon) by taking a deep breath in and then let it out slowly as you blow into the wand (or balloon.)

  • Snow Globe relaxation – Have children bring in their favorite snow globes or have them create their own. Have each student shake the globe, place it on their desk, and then breathe in rhythm to the snow settling. Their breathing will naturally slow down as the flakes settle on the bottom. They can even rest their hands on their stomachs to feel their breaths move up and down as we watch the snow fall and settle in the globe.

  • This is an easy one. Have your students sit for two minutes with a half-smile on their face. This relaxes the face muscles.

  • Pretzel Fun – Have your students stand up by their seat and imagine they are long pieces of dough being stretched out before they’re twisted into pretzels. Have them extend their arms and legs as if they are the pretzel dough being stretched out. Then have them sit on the floor and twist themselves into different pretzel positions. If you have an oven nearby you and your class can make pretzel dough from scratch so your students can see what you mean by “stretching’ and “twisting” the dough. Of course only you should go near the oven!

Activities that teach Mindfulness

These can be done as students sit in their seats or in a circle. The aim of each activity is for the child to pay very close attention to what is immediately in front of them.

  • Have each child write their name slowly first using their dominant hand and then their non-dominant hand.

  • Mindfully eat a raisin (or anything chewy) – have each child first hold the raisin and observe what it looks like, then what it smells like, and finally what it tastes like as they put it in their mouth and slowly chew.

  • Mindfully unwrap and eat a Hershey’s kiss – similar to #2.

  • The art of touch (or smell) – Have each child put on a blindfold. Pass around a box filled with objects with different textures having each student select an object. For 2 minutes have them touch the object paying close attention to the texture. You can do this with objects that have distinct smells.

  • Chime time – Ring a chime (or bell) directing students to listen to when the sound can’t be heard anymore.

  • Be mindful of the parts of your face – Have students close their eyes and try to “feel” the parts of their face (not using hands!)

  • Think of someone you have strong feelings for and pay attention to how your body feels. If you have thoughts, let them come and go (like they were scrolling on the bottom of a TV screen) without judging them.

  • Close your eyes and imagine making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “Feel” the texture of the bread, “smell” the peanut belly and the jelly, imagine the smoothness of spreading the peanut butter and the jelly on the bread. And then taste it!

  • As you take a walk with your class have them listen to the sounds all around them.

Group Mindfulness Fun

Play these “games” in large or small groups.

  • Last Letter, First letter – Sit in a circle and have a child say a word. Then the child to the right must say a word that starts with the last letter of the word that the first person says, etc.

  • Snap, crackle, pop – Give your class the following instructions as they sit in a circle: The student that starts will put his (or her) right or left arm across his chest and will say “snap” as he points to someone in the circle, the person getting pointed at raises either her (or his) left or right arm over her head to point to another child while saying “crackle”, and the child getting pointed at then says “pop” as he (or she) points to someone else in the circle. Keep doing this and you’ll see that it takes a lot of concentration!

  • Sing “Row, Row, Row your Boat” in rounds.

  • Put on a DVD and do “Freeze Dancing.”

  • Pass around an iPad or other device showing the News-O-Matic stories and have each child point in turn to a word beginning with a letter that follows the sequence of the alphabet.

If you’re feeling stressed you can Mindful activities to help you relax as well. If you need some help there are many self-help books that will teach you how to be more aware of yourself in the present moment and less worried about the past or the future. Thank you for reading.

By Dr. Phyllis Ohr


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