SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

March 15, 2013

How to prepare for summer camps and MCAS tests

Dr. Kate's Parent Rap
Dr. Kate Roberts

---- — Q: Our 9-year-old son wants to attend overnight camp this summer. How can we be certain he is ready, and what can we do to prepare?

A: This time of year, I get a lot of questions about summer camps and the MCAS tests. Let’s start with camps! Nine is a perfect age for most children to attend overnight camp. Before sending them off, consider the following tips:

Good fit: Both you and your son should be comfortable with the camp you choose. Look for a camp with a strong reputation and a responsive staff who will answer your questions in advance about the camp’s schedule and overall experience. Then review the information together and pick the best “fit” camp. It’s best to start with a one-to-two-week camp.

Trial run: Have your son stay with a friend for a weekend and agree to have no contact. See how he fares while away.

Life skills: Review skills such as self-care and managing belongings. Talk about feelings and fears on topics from individual and group chores to abiding by rules. Remind your son that it’s natural to be homesick and it’ll probably only last a few days, especially when he remembers how much fun he’ll be having! If he’s anxious, encourage him to talk with a staff member.

“What if” scenarios: Reviewing scenarios like, “What if you lose your hat?” or “What if you don’t like everyone in your cabin?” is good preparation. As your son responds to various situations, he’ll develop an independence and confidence that he’ll bring home.

Your schedule: Let him know exactly when you’ll pick him up. Set guidelines for how much and what type of communication you’ll have while he is away. Let him know you’ll reach him if you need to, then mail handwritten letters (remember those?) to him in advance so they’ll be waiting for him when he arrives.

Buddy system: Even if your son opts to go with a friend, he might get homesick. Talk about how making new friends makes a camp experience better.

Letting go: Go ahead, feel the emotion. Parents typically struggle with the first overnight camp, but it’s a passage to independence your son will never forget. It’s also a step toward fulfilling every parent’s goal: raising a child who is prepared for adulthood.

Parenting tip: Demonstrate confidence when your son attempts new and scary ventures. Your optimism is infectious and will live within him long after you leave him at camp, college or his first apartment.

Q: What’s the significance of MCAS, and why is my fourth-grade daughter anxious about it?

A: The MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) is the statewide standards-based assessment that tests students’ knowledge of the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks. High school students must achieve a passing score to receive a high school diploma, but otherwise MCAS does not count toward student grades.

The MCAS covers a lot of information. At the fourth-grade level, it can appear overwhelming and contribute to a child’s anxiety. Tell your child that the MCAS is more of a tool for her teachers and school than a reflection of her ability.

As a parent, your job is to remind your child that tests exist simply to “show what they know.” Encourage her to relax during tests, emphasizing that her effort is more important than any test score. Sure, some children are anxious test takers. If your child is in fourth grade and you notice a pattern of anxiety before MCAS, you may want to address it using relaxation techniques such as exercise, deep breathing and visualization. (If these don’t help, seek professional consultation to help her manage her anxiety.)

Also, the MCAS is not timed. The SATs in high school are timed, so help your child manage test anxiety before she sits for timed tests. Children anxious about MCAS tend to be more anxious in general, and parents should address test or performance anxiety sooner rather than later.

The best way to do this is to remember that everything in school can feel like a big deal — tests, grades, etc. What matters most is that she puts forth her best effort. The process of learning and doing our best is what brings satisfaction and contentment.

Parenting tip: If your child is anxious during MCAS, talk about how to handle it or seek a professional consultation. The younger the person is, the easier it is to learn adaptive, positive coping strategies to manage life stresses. Testing is a part of life, and MCAS testing can be an opportunity to guide your child.

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Dr. Kate Roberts is a psychologist and parenting coach. Send your questions to kate@katerobertsandassociates.com or to Dr. Kate Roberts on Facebook.