Help students learn to manage stress during ‘testing season’

The ACTs and state testing are just behind us, and AP tests, final projects and final exams are right around the corner.

Remember what it felt like to be a high school student under that kind of stress?

Even teenagers who don’t have a mental illness, like anxiety or depression, can feel overwhelmed and stressed out at this time of year.

I remember my junior year very clearly. I remember being furious with my parents for having “bridge night” the night before my AP U.S. History test. How dare they? I negotiated to study at their friends’ house, where it was quiet.

They made me come home at 11 p.m., and then they forced me to go to bed by midnight. I was not happy.

I also remember being so intense about the SAT (also junior year) that my parents didn’t tell me — that’s right, they kept it secret — that my grandfather had died the night before. Then they were furious with me for going out to celebrate with friends after the test.

It was an emotional roller coaster.

So what can we do to help relieve the stress on our students? Here are a few things I probably didn’t know then, but that help me manage stress now.

#1 Sleep. Teenagers need to get enough sleep. They will argue — as I did — that they have to stay up late to get that A or 36 or 5, but they don’t. You need sleep to perform your best, and depriving yourself will harm you physically and emotionally, as well as not helping your grades. This is one case where I can look back and say yes, my parents were right.

#2 Eat healthy, but also treat yourself. When our bodies are under stress, we need plenty of protein as well as fresh veggies, fruits and water. Overdosing on caffeine doesn’t help — it just ramps up the anxiety. But a pan of brownies always makes things better, in my opinion. Parceling out little rewards during studying makes it more bearable.

#3 Don’t sacrifice exercise. I know — my gym stop is often the first thing to go when I have too much to do. That’s a mistake. If you can’t work out for 45 minutes, then do 15. Take a walk with the dog. You think more clearly after you exercise, and you get more done.

#4 Study with friends. Fun friends. One reason I was able to survive my high-stress, AP workload in high school was my friends. My friend Donna and I studied together all the time, especially for classes like APUSH, Calc and AP Chem, and our best in-jokes are still from those study sessions. One time we invited two boys in our class to study with us, and we must have been pretty annoying, because they kept asking if they could leave. “Is it over? Can we go now?” Still makes me laugh.

#5 Know when you’ve had enough. When your brain starts feeling tired, and you’re reading the same line three times, just stop. It doesn’t matter how much is still on your to-do list. Stop.

#6 Don’t expect perfection. One of my students said to me today: I just need a 3 on this (AP test). It made me smile. Do your best. Keep your life in balance. And when you don’t know something, let it go. I still remember one of the FRQs on my AP Chem test was on something I knew absolutely zero about. Luckily, I started laughing (yes, out loud during the test) instead of crying.

#7 Think about your “why.” Don’t work hard because you want that A or 36 or 5. Work hard because you want to learn as much as you can. Work hard because you have a dream to be a scientist or a business owner or a software developer. If you know why you’re doing it, the work becomes more meaningful — and then, less onerous.

In the end, your success truly is not about the grades or test scores. It’s about what kind of person you become and what kind of learner you become. Learning how to learn, learning how to stick to a difficult task, and learning how to manage competing demands — those are the best lessons you can take with you.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. She is also Chief Educator-in-Residence at Quarter Zero. Visit or like the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom