May 13, 2024

Navigating Standardized Tests: Strategies for Students with Executive Functioning Challenges

By Emma Michiels, Instructor

Standardized tests are a significant aspect of modern education, designed to measure a student’s knowledge and skills across a range of subjects. However, for students with executive functioning challenges, these tests can be daunting. Executive functioning refers to a set of cognitive skills that enable individuals to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and manage multiple tasks. When these skills are compromised, students may find standardized testing particularly difficult. Despite these challenges, there are effective strategies that can help these students succeed. This blog post outlines key approaches to support students with executive functioning challenges during standardized testing.

Strategies for Success

  1. Preview the Test Structure and Format

One of the best ways to reduce anxiety for students with executive functioning challenges is to familiarize them with the test format. Providing them with practice tests, sample questions, and clear instructions can help them understand what to expect. It might be important to think about whether the test is online or if the student would be using pen and paper when mimicking the testing environment. In addition, preview all reference sheets to have students familiarize themselves with the supporting resources. This preparation can reduce stress and increase confidence on test day.

  1. Develop and Practice a Toolbox of Test-Taking Strategies

A clear plan is crucial for students with executive functioning challenges. Teach them how to allocate time for each section, employ strategies for tackling difficult questions, and understand when to move on to maintain a steady pace. For example, breaking down a mathematics question into smaller chunks can allow the student to focus on one step at a time, and avoid becoming overwhelmed. In addition, encouraging students to skip and come back to problems later prevents test-takers from getting stuck on a single question or losing track of time.

  1. Provide Accommodations and Support

Some students are eligible to receive accommodations during standardized testing. These might include extended time, extra breaks, a separate testing environment, or the use of assistive technology. Collaborate with school counselors or educational psychologists to ensure the appropriate accommodations are in place. Also, make sure your child is aware of what accommodations they will receive to show what they know on test day.

  1. Foster Organizational Skills

Students with executive functioning challenges often struggle with organization. Look up the testing dates with your child and add them to  their calendar. Encourage the use of planners, to-do lists, and visual schedules to help them stay on track with their studying. An organized approach to studying and test-taking can reduce last-minute stress and enhance focus during the exam.

  1. Manage Test Anxiety

Test anxiety can be particularly intense for students with executive functioning challenges. Techniques like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization can help them manage stress. Encourage them to practice these techniques regularly, not just on test day, to build a sense of calm and control.

  1. Build Focus and Concentration

Developing focus and concentration skills can be beneficial for students with executive functioning challenges. Activities such as mindfulness meditation, yoga, and regular exercise can help improve their ability to concentrate. Implementing breaks during study sessions to avoid burnout is also a helpful strategy, not just for test taking, but between homework assignments as well. Students may benefit from attentional boosts during the tests themselves too.; Consider discussing what your child might pack with them to aid in their focus during the exam (gum, mints, a fidget, etc.)

  1. Build in Opportunities to Reflect

Foster self-reflection skills by providing opportunities for your child to check in with themselves throughout the standardized testing process. Before embarking on any test prep, for example, reflect with your student on how they are feeling about the test, what areas they feel confident in, and which topics/kinds of questions they might benefit from more help on. After completing the test would be a great time to follow-up with that reflective mindset. What went well? What felt challenging? What might  they do differently next time around?

  1. Promote Adequate Sleep and Nutrition

Proper sleep and nutrition play a critical role in cognitive functioning. Ensure that students with executive functioning challenges get sufficient rest and eat balanced meals, especially leading up to the test. A consistent sleep routine and a healthy diet can boost energy and focus on test day.

By implementing these strategies, students with executive functioning challenges can approach standardized tests with greater confidence and success. These techniques aim to create an environment where these students can demonstrate their knowledge and skills without being hindered by executive functioning challenges.