The best thing about final exams is that they don’t last long. Classes ended this week, and exams are now in full swing. Students who normally put a lot of effort into their personal grooming are showing up in sweats, with binders, flashcards and textbooks in tow, and that glazed look in their eyes that tells me they have not slept well, anything they have crammed into their brains overnight is probably less secure than it was before they started studying, and they’re living in the moment because they can’t even think about tomorrow’s exams yet. Ah, exam stress, it brings back fond memories of burying myself in the Engineering library with 3 days to learn an entire course. I have the fortunate perspective of an adult, who knows that exams will pass, summer will begin, and life will go on. I can joke about exam stress because, as an adult, I don’t take exams too seriously, however, I do see the effect of this stress from the student perspective. The source of the stress doesn’t matter because the physiological effects are real. To some students, this effect is serious.
Yesterday, I was supervising an English exam. A short time after the intial quiet while the students read a story for analysis, three students started to become restless. One, nearly in tears, had to be escorted (quickly) to the washroom with nausea, the second couldn’t focus to read the story, and the third student couldn’t figure out what was going on with his brain- it was completely in a jumble, and he wanted to leave, immediately. All of these students have learning disabilities, and these types of reactions are typical of them, but the interesting commonality between them wasn’t just their level of test anxiety, it was their lack of awareness that they were experiencing stress. None of these students was able to acknowledge that their physical symptoms were being caused by stress, they were only focused on the physical symptoms they were feeling, and none of them knew how to cope. Now, technically, if these students were writing a standardized, or “Provincial” exam, I would be allowed to provide them with a computer, with spellchecker, and a maximum of double-time to complete their exam. Officially, they would be allowed to sit still with their thoughts for four hours. I’m not very good at following rules if the rules don’t make sense, especially if these rules might cause harm to children, so I helped out.
I swear, I did not facilitate any form of cheating, but what I did do was use this opportunity to teach these students the very important lesson of how to deal with stress. For all three students ( starting with the obvious first priority, the barfer) I helped them calm down. Taking a student down off a ledge, of sorts, doesn’t take much. The first student just needed to step out of the room for a minute. One at a time, I took the other two out of the room, talked them calmly through starting to plan a written response and helping them to deal with their anxiety by acknowledging it then moving on to the task at hand. I was insistent, but I pushed them nicely. I doubt that any of them ended up with their best written work ever, but I know they each learned something. I’m sure of this, because today I also had to supervise this same group of students in a second exam. None of them freaked out. One student, the most extreme yesterday, needed a little guidance from another teacher, but he showed no signs of stress. The other two students wrote excellent papers on their own today.
IEPs for students who have learning disabilities are designed to be fair. Students are given allowances to help them with processing and fluent thinking, but there are no objective accommodations that can be consistently allowed that would fit nor match the needs of an anxious student. This type of support requires judgement and sensitivity on the part of a teacher. I need to find some way to address this discrepancy. I’m starting this conversation here.