Brain, body, mind--they're all linked. No one is more aware of this vital connection and how it affects students' performance on End of Grade (EOG) testing than Buies Creek Elementary School principal Alice Cobb. So Cobb called on Dr. Harriet Enzor, a professor of education and counseling at Campbell University, to teach her students some stress relief activities that would help calm their test-taking fears.
"Our children tend to have a lot of anxiety at test time," Cobb said. "I saw this as an opportunity to use our relationship with Campbell University and its resources to help our students relax and better prepare for the test."
Enzor, who not only has a background as an elementary school teacher and counselor, her own private counseling practice and 18 years of experience as a professor in the School of Education, has also conducted stress management workshops for professional groups such as law enforcement and school counselors. She begins by giving people information on the stress responses of the brain and how they work. With the Buies Creek Elementary students, grades 3-5, she reinforced that information with activities she hopes they will never forget.
"Elementary school children are very tactile," said Enzor. "Any activity they can perform seals the learning. I had an absolute blast coming up with activities they would remember at test time."
Showing the students pictures of the brain and explaining how the brain works, Enzor honed in on the amygdala, the portion of the brain that regulates fear and other emotional responses. Prolonged traumatic stress suppresses the function of the brain's frontal lobe or hippocampus, an organ involved in learning and memory, she explained.
"We need the stress response system because it protects us," Enzor said. "But we also need to know when it's out of control, such as in non life-threatening situations like test taking or going on a first date."
When the stress response system is activated, it causes memory and learning to shut down. Prolonged stress can even cause the hippocampus to deteriorate.
Reinforcing this information with activities, Enzor taught students how to call out their endorphins or "good" chemicals in the brain to counteract the stress-related chemicals.
"I taught them a mantra: â€˜I'm good, I'm great, I'm wonderful,'" she said. "By repeating this mantra when they are stressed, they can convince the brain that they are in a non-threatening situation and cause endorphins to appear."
Then, using fancy straws decorated with pink flamingoes and other characters, Enzor taught the students how to take deep breaths to calm themselves, exhaling through the straws into a plastic cup of bubbles.
"They loved this activity," she said. "They put the straws into their mouths and blew and blew and blew!"
But Enzor wasn't finished. With popsickle sticks, self-adhesive google eyes and brightly colored pom-poms, she had the students make their own version of an endorphin, one they could pull out whenever they feel stressed.
"These are ways to deal with stress and anxiety, Enzor said. "Music, mantras and saying positive things can change the whole chemistry of the brain."
Principal Cobb said the students are still taking EOG tests and, although the test scores are not all in yet, the students appeared less stressful taking the test than in previous years.
"This is a reading test emphasizing inferences," she said. "The children have to think very hard and read critically. I think Dr. Enzor's strategies helped calm the students a lot."
Dr. Harriet Enzor received a Bachelor of Science degree from Campbell University. She went on to earn a Master of Education and a Ph.D. in Counseling and Development from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.