If you meet a Year 6 teacher in January, the likelihood is that they are a shadow of their September selves. Gone are the dapper dress sense and the happy-go-lucky attitude. That feeling of easily ‘surviving SATS’ seemed a lifetime ago.
Now, however, some are counting down the weeks, others the days, until that dreaded week in May. Headteachers have maniacal grins on their faces, suspicions arise that Year 6 staff water bottles are actually full of gin and other teachers avoid the staff room, in case arguments arise over the use of fronted adverbials in a piece of writing.
In 2017, the Guardian newspaper reported that, according to a survey of school leaders, 82% reported an increase in mental health issues in school pupils in the build-up to SATS.
I’ve been witness to the impact of SATS stress, on teachers and pupils; children sobbing during reading tests became the norm. The use of our pastoral support assistants became an integral part of getting some children through the test week.
So it got me thinking - does it have to be this way? Can Year 6 teachers put the cap back on the Gin bottle, and start ironing their clothes the night before again.
What can be done to help pupils approach the tests in a way that enables them to feel confident, happy and prepared? How can you, the teachers, support the children to feel this way and, in turn, feel less stressed yourself?
Here are a few ideas for supporting your pupils and surviving SATS in 2019.
1. Model Classroom Positivity
It is all too easy, as teachers, to let negative thinking escape from your lips and into the words you say to your class. Keep the language you use about the upcoming SATS as positive as possible, reminding the children that it’s an opportunity for them to show off what they’ve learned during KS2. But also remind them that it’s only a snapshot of what they’re capable of.
2. Challenge Pupil’s Negative Beliefs
Any Year 6 teacher will know that children express their limiting beliefs more readily than adults do. If you hear negative chatter from pupils, challenge them in a supportive way. Remind them that our brains believe what we tell them, so instead of thinking of everything they can’t do, introduce them to the magic word, ‘yet.’
Eliminate ‘can’t’ from their vocabulary and change it to, “I’m not able to do it…yet’ or ‘I’m still learning to do this.’ The more you challenge negativity, the less you’ll hear it.
3. Encourage Peer-to-Peer Coaching amongst pupils
I’ve been lucky enough to witness the positive effects of peer-to-peer coaching in the classroom, primarily from using the Kagan approach. A child learning from another is a powerful method that produces phenomenal results.
Pairing a child with a peer who really understands a concept enables both children to benefit. One child consolidates their learning by explaining a concept to another, while the other is able to practise their skills in a supportive way. Positive language from both parties means confidence grows.
4. Practise Mindfulness as a way to reduce stress
Mindfulness is growing in popularity in schools and for good reason. When children are in stressful situations, they can rely on mindfulness techniques to help them feel calm again. One of these techniques is focused breathing. As a teacher, you have the opportunity to use this at various times in the day – how about during that wonderful transition between lunch and afternoon lessons?
Support the children to close their eyes and count each breath in and out until they reach ten, focusing on their chests rising and falling. Ask them to notice how they feel at the end of it. Encourage them to use this technique before opening a SATS paper or when they feel overwhelmed.
5. Develop an Understanding of how Growth Mindset can help pupils improve their learning
Good old growth mindset, it’s certainly been doing the rounds in schools over the past few years. Helping children to believe that knowledge and personal growth isn’t fixed and that learning from our mistakes is imperative to success is as important as learning the 7x table or understanding the present perfect tense. Not only is this skill useful now, it will help them to manage challenges that come their way as they move through secondary education and beyond.
6. Start developing children’s understanding of growth mindset or mindfulness early
It’s all well and good asking Year 6 teachers to develop these approaches, but why not embed them as early as you can? It’s never ‘too soon’ to develop children’s understanding of growth mindset or mindfulness.
When it comes to SATS, preparations should begin in Year 5. Well-prepared, emotionally intelligent children will be able to kick SATS in the proverbial butt.
Developing a Happy-Centred School will help children develop their resilience, growth mindset and confidence from Reception onwards.
7. Encourage the children to visualise their success in the SATS
Visualising achievement is what the most successful people do. Those high jumpers on the TV that you see closing their eyes, mimicking the movements their body will perform? They’re using visualization to help them leap higher and better than they ever have before.
Ask them to picture finishing the test and closing the booklet with a big smile on their face. Can they imagine tackling that long division question with ease? How will they feel when they’ve completed it? Our brains can’t tell the difference between an imagined image and a real one, so why not take advantage of that and help your class visualise the success they deserve.
8. Set Up a SATS Breakfast Club for Y6 pupils
During SATS week, it’s now fairly customary for schools to run a breakfast club for Y6 pupils. We think it’s a great idea – there’s nothing worse than coming into school and immediately into a test situation, right? Get the children together and encourage them to relax over a slice of toast or cereal.
If you can, sit outside in the sunshine or get them busting some dance moves - anything to take their minds of the test ahead of them and, most importantly, encourage some smiling. Sit together in a circle and practise the mindfulness and visualization exercises they’ve been learning.
9. Flip negative emotions to positive ones
Using the F.L.I.P-it technique to flip negative emotions to positive ones can have a profound effect on how children feel as they take their SATS tests. Helping children to learn these practical skills so that they are easy to remember, as well as easy to use, is really important.
The F.L.I.P-it technique uses focus, languages, imagination and pattern breaking to encourage positive thinking. One of our earlier schools blogs explains how to use F.L.I.P-it to create stress-free schools
10. Build pupils self-esteem with past papers
Making learning and revising as fun as possible can help embed more difficult concepts and build self-esteem. One way to do this is by using past papers, but in the style of a pub (one that serves Gin – obviously) quiz. One and two mark questions are the best ones, as they are the quickest to answer. Try it with arithmetic or reasoning problems in maths – cut them up and hand them out or put the questions on the board.
Whichever way you do it, get the children working together and their confidence will grow. Get them creating their own buzzer noises and the laughter will flow…
Surviving SATS is Possible
Developing a positive culture in the classroom can do wonders for a child’s approach to surviving SATS, as well as their overall self-confidence. Viewing it as an experience to tackle, rather than one to be fearful of, will change their whole approach to the situation.
Challenge their limiting beliefs or negative talk and encourage them to reframe or rephrase it into something positive. Model these attributes yourself. And before you know it, both you and your class will be ready to knock SATS out of the park…looking sharp and without a gin bottle in sight.
Steph Caswell was a Deputy Headteacher, SENCO and Year 6 teacher. She currently works as an educational coach and writer.