Don't Worry, Mom

Coping with anxiety in families

Creating Generation Anxiety

How pressure to succeed may induce anxiety in kids

I read a news story the other day about a 6 year old child in a kindergarten class who soiled her pants when she was denied access to a bathroom during standardized testing. The school's approach to this was that although the testing is mandatory only for children in grades 3 and up, they decided to give the test to kindergarterners and apply rules forbidding children from using the bathroom during this testing in order to prepare them for what is to come.  The poor girl was made to sit in her soiled pants for the remainder of the testing. 

http://usnews.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/04/19/11289662-missouri-mo...


Even if you ignore the obvious human rights issues that this brings up--access to a bathroom, not being required to sit in your own soiled clothing, etc, this brings to mind the message that schools are sending to our children and the psychological impact of this message.  Kindergarteners are now taking standardized testing in order to demonstrate their aptitude and to prepare for a lifetime of rigorous testing and requirements to excel.  Performance on an exam is being emphasized even at the age of 5 when a child should be learning to value education and to enjoy the process of education. Although I have heard that parents need to focus on such things as children attending "the right" preschool because only those who go to the right preschool will end up Ivy League educated, I always ignored it as something that my child would never face.


I am a product of the Philadelphia public schools and I like to think that I turned out okay.  My parents instilled in me that education was essential and that learning was something enjoyable that occurred throughout life.  That is what drove me to learn and to want to teach others.  Although I wanted to excel, I also enjoyed the process of learning and still do.  I always assumed that my child would grow up with the same values and that she would not be exposed to this idea that her future or value was determined by some test that she took as a kid. 

I remember how anxious I was as a child--always wanting to make my parents proud of me.  I even recall nightmares about not finishing standardized tests in time and the anxiety that I experienced over how long it took me to bubble in my long last name on the scantron sheet because that deducted precious seconds from my total testing time.  I can remember teachers talking to us about the importance of these exams and my fear that they would indicate that I was below average.  Perhaps I had forgotten how anxiety-provoking that was or thought that somehow I could shield my daughter from the emphasis on aptitude and success until she was older.  From my perspective, kids should be kids and a childhood should not include worrying about standardized tests, whether one is "smart enough," or scores high enough on tests.  When I think about how common test-taking anxiety is, I can see where it comes from--the emphasis even in elementary school on the importance of these tests as an indicator of our intelligence and our value as students.  Performance on standardized tests has become a currency in schools--what determines whether teachers keep their jobs and whether schools will be put on probation.  If the stakes are that high, of course students will experience anxiety about testing and through that, often the value of education becomes just a number on a test.  Although I am not opposed to standardized testing as a rule, I am opposed to many of the values that these tests seem to impose on children and the anxiety that this will create in an entire generation of children who are pushed to produce at such a young age.

I have often seen students in my college classes crying over not receiving an A on an exam.  I have met with students who said that they had performed poorly on a test, only to realize that "poorly" meant an 88.  Students have broken down under the pressure to get a 4.0 and have become depressed and anxious over the idea that without that 4.0 they will never amount to anything. Some students have lost touch with the entire point of a college education--to learn and to become critical thinkers.  Instead, much of the focus becomes performance on tests and what a student's performance on these tests indicates about the person's intelligence or likelihood of success. I have fought against that and attempted to make education enjoyable and to encourage students to learn just for the sake of the knowledge, but I have always wondered where defining one's value based on a test score comes from.

Now I can see where that stems from---kindergarteners who are being "prepped" for standardized testing by not permitting them to go to the bathroom.  Kindergarten is not a time to "prepare" them for a life of standardized testing and repeated tests that are supposed to indicate their likelihood of success in this world.  And if that is what we are doing in our schools, we are going to create a generation of individuals stricken by anxiety and who define themselves based on a score on a test, not based on their kindness, value as a person, or enjoyment of learning.

I said that I am not opposed to standardized testing.  It can be valuable in identifying children who do not have basic skills that lay the foundation for later learning.  It should be used as a means to gain additional support and assistance for these children.  Instead, it seems that teachers are pushed to teach for the test and often emphasize to students how important their performance on these tests is rather than emphasizing the value or enjoyment in learning.  Why else would you refuse to allow a kindergartener to go to the bathroom during a test that isn't even required for children her age?  And what type of anxiety will this child face next time she has to take a standardized test?  What anxiety will the entire class face knowing that it could just have easily have been them who ended up in that situation?  And what impact will this have on the next generation if the goal of kindergarten is to prepare kids for the harsh realities of life--that they are only as good as their standardized test score, SAT, MCAT, or GRE score and that if they cannot perform adequately, their future is bleak.  If that doesn't create anxiety disorders and chronic stress in our kids, I do not know what will.

I have told my daughter since birth that I will love her no matter who she ends up being.  Just her existence is enough for me.  I will tell her that until the day that I die and fight any teacher who tries to tell her otherwise or to pressure her to produce on some exam.  It is not that I do not want her to succeed or that I desire to have a lazy child.  I just want her to maintain the excitement that she has now when she learns a new word or gets a new book--her obvious joy at mastering something new and the curiosity that she brings to every new situation.  I never want to see her burdened by fear that her performance on some test is a measure of her or who she will become in life.  That's too much pressure even for an adult, and certainly too much pressure for a kindergartener.  The irony is that if we instill in students the value of education and enjoyment in learning, they will excel in life and on tests because they will truly internalize the information that they are learning.  That has become lost in schools and in many parents who push their kids to excel starting in preschool.  It makes me sad that this is what education has become in our country and that many students are suffering because of this.  I think it's time to remember what the whole point of education is--to have a generation that can contribute to science, politics, and our communities and that can help us to progress--not a generation so anxiety-ridden and achievement-oriented that they forget to enjoy life and the education that we receive through it. 

Amy Przeworski, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and specializes in anxiety disorders in children, adolescents, and adults.

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