If there is one thing guaranteed to cause anxiety in my room, it’s any mention of the words ‘exam’ or ‘test’. In fact I’m absolutely sure that my students have an inbuilt radar which tells them when any of us have even been discussing the possibility of one! Exams are stressful, it’s the feeling of making a mistake which can’t be rectified, it’s the thought of sitting in silence in a strange room with a strange person, it’s the thought of opening something which is unknown and not knowing the answers. It’s also a change from our usual routine. Especially if we don’t have Art on a Thursday and then someone puts an Art exam on a Thursday – well clearly that is unreasonable of them. Art should not be done on a Thursday.
The reality of life however, is that much as we hate putting our students through the added anxiety of exams – the new curriculum is going to demand that of them more regularly. We need therefore to equip them with the skills to deal with this, without creating additional stress. Luckily we have a few tried and tests tricks up our sleeves to get both us and our students through exams in one piece:
- Avoid using the words – Exam or Test – we tend to complete a work booklet in silence (because someone is feeling upset and needs the room to be quiet), or do a piece of writing without any help (so the teacher knows which bits she has forgotten to teach this term, then she can make sure she does them next term). We need our students to get used to doing exams, but we can teach the procedure without the anxiety. (If the paper has a cover sheet with EXAM or TEST across the front, rip it off)
- Try to minimise the importance of the test. If you want to emphasise its importance to your other students, please find a very important job across the other side of the school and dispatch anxious students to complete it, whilst you discuss the importance of getting good marks in the impending exam.
- Pick your times carefully – in an ideal world the test should take place at the same time as the lesson normally would (thus reducing anxiety about change in routine, and making the student more likely to be willing to give it a go).
- Allow the student to complete the test in a familiar place, with a familiar person and familiar things around them. If a student feels safe they are much less likely to be anxious and therefore much more likely to perform well.
- Have a get out plan. Make sure the students knows what they need to do if they feel like they can no longer cope. Can they take a time out? How do they need to ask for one? Where are they allowed to go?
- Reinforcement, or shameless bribery and corruption. Whilst I normally prefer the former, when the stakes are high and GCSEs are at stake – I have been known to engage in the latter. Make sure you have special rewards for particularly difficult tasks; things relating to your students’ special interests will be especially helpful and will make them feel calmer.
I know it’s hard. As teachers we have 101 demands on our time and multiple priorities competing for our attention, but being aware both of the levels of anxiety felt by many students with ASD about upcoming exams and knowing how to reduce that anxiety will make a massive difference, not only to their emotional state of mind (and that of their families) but also to their results.
Let’s make sure we empower our students to face the demands of the new curriculum, rather than let it overwhelm both them and us.