Taking the Anxiety Out of School Testing

When our youngest was just five years old, we moved from Washington to the suburbs. A husband, three children, a dog, and a full-time job. It shouldn’t be that hard, right? Well, it was the school search that nearly did me in.
We looked at local public and parochial schools, and were not happy with the student: teacher ratio. The classes were just too large at 25 to 30. We looked at Montessori, which worked for us in D.C., and found that the classes were too small at 3 to 7 per grade. After finally touring a K-12 independent school, we found the breadth and depth of curriculum paired with classes of 12 to 15, and knew it was just right. The Baby Bear in the Goldilocks story, so to speak.
But this was a top school, and even then, Kindergarten was looking more like first grade. When I learned that our daughter needed to be tested, I was incensed. I knew that she was of “higher intelligence” since her grandmother pronounced this upon her birth. I also knew that as the youngest, she was exposed to more, and that she was engaged, articulate, and had a great sense of humor. No test necessary, period. In truth, I felt threatened by the very idea of a test, and worried that it would scar this little one for life.
All these years later, I can still remember the strength of these feelings. My guess is that they are pretty normal, and so I will share some of my hard-won wisdom with you.
Rule number one: Get it together. Talk with friends, family, a therapist, or someone else who can help you examine your anxiety in order to keep it from rubbing off on your child. Deal with your fears in advance, so you are calm, cool and collected when you talk with your child about a school visit. I love the idea of “practicing Kindergarten at St. Paul’s” for the morning, as one parent phrased it. It sounds so normal and routine. Even if you are not feeling it, we all know that the best parents have to be actors sometimes.
swingRule number two: Do a drive-by. Visit the school playground on a Saturday and make sure it’s a fun trip. If it is winter, share a thermos of hot chocolate after a quick run around the playground. It will be a positive experience you can refer to when it’s time to visit and test. You may even run into a few children who already attend the school. Nothing like a new friend to put you at ease!
Rule number three: Put a time frame on it. Explain to your child that she will only visit for the watchmorning, and will then go back to her “regular” school the very next day. She can tell her teacher and her friends all about her adventure visiting a new school, and may bring up a topic that others are facing for a healthy conversation. Be sure to ask enough questions to give her examples of what she will do during her visit, and help her to feel secure by demonstrating that you have confidence in her.
Rule number four: Trust the universe. If the visit goes well, the adults working with your child created a safe, loving environment that allowed her to show her true self. If, on the other hand, your child cries and refuses to separate from you (I know, extreme example, but it happens once in a while) just ask if you can come back another day, and go home. No frustration, no recriminations, no heavy sighs about missing more work. Your child may be coming down with something, or may just be having an off day. All four and five year olds deserve another chance, and it will be a true measure of the prospective school if they understand and allow for this.
plan-BFinally, rule number five: Have a Plan B. You may find that your child doesn’t feel comfortable at the schools you have visited. Widen your search and look for a school that is a good fit for your family. Every child deserves to attend a school where he or she will shine.
Now back to my daughter and our story. Fast forward 20 years, and that little one is an emergency room nurse at a large Baltimore hospital, unscarred, at least, by Kindergarten testing. Her mother, who conquered at least some of her fears, has been in independent school admissions for the past 15 of those 20 years.

Martha Donovan

Martha Donovan

Mrs. Donovan is the Associate Director of Lower School Admissions at St. Paul’s. She previously spent ten years in Middle and Upper School Admissions at the Key School in Annapolis, where her three children graduated. Since coming to St. Paul’s, she and her husband have moved to Baltimore and love it. Mrs. Donovan also has experience as a national news editor with NBC Radio and Mutual News, and spent a year as a Press Secretary on Capitol Hill. You will often find her in the Kindergarten classrooms or on the early carpool line, anywhere she can see the kids in action. She can be reached at mdonovan@stpaulsschool.org

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