Reduce Testing Stress With Daily Zen Activities

By Paige Garrison

It starts with backpacks being dropped heavily on the floor. Then come the sighs—long, deep, exhausted things. “Ms. Garrison, I am so stressed.”

As a Media Specialist, I’m privy to a lot of unfiltered thoughts belonging to our middle school students. They’ll pass by my desk on their way to study hall or if their class is meeting in the library and tell me all the things that are stressing them out.

To them, I’m an outlet to vent that doesn’t require scheduling a time with one of our school counselors – especially if they aren’t looking for a solution. They just want someone to listen to them.

The impact of stress on middle schoolers

Of course, I am listening. What they don’t know is that I’m also thinking up solutions for them so they aren’t burdened with so much stress. They’re middle schoolers. They shouldn’t be as stressed out and anxious as they are. I wasn’t like this when I was in middle school. But that was 15 or so years ago. Times are much different now than they were back in the early 2000s and before that.

Stress is a common ailment among students of all ages. Study after study has been done, and the results are much the same—students today are more stressed out than ever. The stress comes from a variety of areas. Homework, after-school activities like practices for sports or the school play, other commitments like tutoring, and non-school activities like dance, gymnastics, or travel baseball.

Many students in our independent school are more scheduled than before with the goal being to create a resume that will entice the best high schools and the best colleges to accept them immediately. Life and family situations can create stress for middle grades kids across the board – whatever school they attend.

Unfortunately, most students don’t have the skills to manage their stress. Even if they do, many of them may not prioritize setting aside the time in their schedules to practice those skills.

Targeting test stress

After hearing students talk about being stressed, I was determined to do something about it. While students are stressed throughout the school year, I decided to focus my energy on tackling the time of year when students are the most stressed—test time. At our school, it’s the week of Mid-Terms. So I designed morning activities for students to come in and get their minds off of studying for tests and finishing up projects. I called it The Week of Zen.

The Week of Zen took place every day, Monday through Friday, during our morning carpool time that runs from 7:25-7:55. These 30 minutes are mostly downtime for students, spent in the gym or hanging out in the hallways. Hosting the program during this time allowed for easy implementation – I didn’t have to bother teachers by carving into class time or ask Administration to find the necessary minutes for me to do this.

I promoted it as a drop-in activity so that students who arrived after the start time felt like they could attend. Students could drop by when they could and stay as long as they were able to. I partnered with fellow teachers to promote the Week of Zen activities among their students, pointing out it would be a great place to send students who complete classwork early and need something to do until the bell rings.

Understandably, not every Media Specialist has these freedoms. I’m at a private school so our time is a little more flexible. If you are in a public school and want to do this and don’t have an easy slot of time—like 30 minutes in the morning before class begins – I suggest seeking out Administrative support.

Read about a 5th grade team that
scheduled activities around annual testing

Speak to your principals about brainstorming the best ways to get a Week of Zen started in your schools during extra-stressful weeks. You may have to juggle or adjust, but I truly believe that having activities available to students to alleviate their stress is beneficial to their health and academic performance.

Planning ahead

Planning was a big part of getting the Week of Zen off the ground. There are lots of parts to think about for a program like this. The biggest factors were selecting the de-stressing activities and being thoughtful with timing. The activities selected and the time I had allotted went hand in hand during the planning process.

I had 30 minutes set aside each day, and 30 minutes isn’t necessarily a lot of time even if it sounds like it is in school terms. I chose activities that could be done in about 10 minutes. This way, students could participate regardless of when they arrived to school in the morning. I didn’t want the Week of Zen to feel exclusionary.

I chose activities that appealed to student interests, which I think is key when choosing what to do. You want the kids to want to come based solely on what the activity is and not whatever edible treat you provide.

And yes, we fed them. Each activity had a snack of some kind because, after all, if you feed them they will come. But don’t rely on your snack to boost your attendance—focus on the activity and let the snack be the afterthought.

The activities I selected included Slime Making, Book Talking, Coloring, Yoga, and Stressball Making. Of these activities, Slime Making required the most administrative support (our school had banned it from classrooms because it was becoming a distraction), and the Book Talking was our least attended. Slime Making and Stressball Making proved to be our most popular offerings. Coloring and Yoga were also well-attended.

Avoid adding to your own stress

With the activities, I recommend choosing a mixture of ones that require a lot of preparation and ones that don’t require that much. This will save you five days of stressing since you won’t wake up every morning with your mind racing about all the set up you have to do first thing when you get to school. I know I appreciated after kicking off Monday with Slime Making that my Tuesday activity only required bagels and cream cheese to be set up and books pulled for displays.

I also suggest, if your budget allows, purchasing more supplies than you think you need. For our Stressball activity, I used Orbeez (water beads) that kids like. I thought that 400 would be enough so that is all that I purchased. Turns out, 400 Orbeez sounds like a lot more than it is. I ran out and still had students coming in to make them.

I didn’t want to turn kids away, so I pulled out containers of PlayDoh I had bought for an activity earlier in the week but forgot to use, and we stuffed PlayDoh into balloons. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but I was grateful my forgetfulness earlier in the week benefited me here. If I did the activity again, I would definitely buy at least 1200 Orbeez.

The Week of Zen was a huge success at our school and the students benefited tremendously from it. Students were given a chance to de-stress at a time where their stress levels and anxiety were at their highest. I suggest implementing this program in school Media Centers for all ages. And you don’t have to stick with a one-week plan. There may be other weeks during the year when stress relief sounds like a great idea!

Paige Garrison is the Middle School Media Specialist at the Davis Academy in Atlanta, Georgia. When she isn’t working, she enjoys spending her time reading, baking, or in the great outdoors hiking. Her favorite book is whichever one she is currently reading.

Photo credits: Paige Garrison


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