Your eleventh-grader is about to receive an early holiday “gift”: PSAT scores get sent home in early to mid-December.

For most kids, these scores (and other standardized test scores, such as the SSAT, ISEE, SAT, ACT, etc) hit hard, whether they’re bad or good! And it’s important to give kids the perspective and support they need to turn their results into personal empowerment, and not discouragement.

Identity (sense of Self, of “Who I Am”) develops throughout childhood and adolescence. It forms as kids exercise their inborn skills, discover their strengths and weaknesses, and compare and contrast themselves with others. Am I a smart person? A capable person? A successful person? I formulate those answers by comparing myself to the people around me.

Standardized test scores are just numbers, but they carry tons of meaning for each child as he considers his own score. They show how he stacks up against all of his peers, across the country!

Does your child seem to not care? Chances are, she cares too much! Disappointing scores evoke cognitive dissonance, that very uncomfortable sinking-stomach feeling we get when confronted with shock or failure.

The natural reaction to cognitive dissonance is to “stonewall” against it, to reject the painful messages or block the messages out. A high-enough dose of dissonance can flood the brain and cause the rational thinking area to temporarily shut down. Your child isn’t purposely ignoring you; her brain is closed against psychic pain.

Even the kids who receive good scores experience shock and face important identity challenges:

  • So I really am that “smart”?
  • Yipes! Now the whole world sees what I am supposedly capable of.
  • Is that really true? Am I really smart, or just a fraud?
  • And what a responsibility! Does this mean I have to “live up” to those scores?
  • Am I now stuck with being “a smart person,” for life? Is the bar now always going to be higher for me than for other people?

As a tutor, I do so much more than merely work with students to improve their test scores. I use the test prep experience to help kids process the identity challenges they are facing.

  • I tune in to their feelings and fears.
  • I point out the good news in their scores (yes, there is always some good news, though kids and parents often can’t find it).
  • I use the test preparation process as an exercise in empowerment. By meeting the challenge of the test, conquering hard questions, and making sense of items that used to be confusing, kids build self-esteem: I am capable, I am competent, I am a good learner, my hard work pays off.

I’ve got more to say on this topic, so stay tuned!

photo of the ceiling of the main waiting room, Ellis Island, New York