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Fake pills for FCAT stress causes stir at Hillsborough elementary school

TAMPA — Two Westchase Elementary School teachers ruffled some feathers last week after passing out mints in what looked like over-sized prescription pill bottles to ease FCAT jitters.

One grandmother complained that the incident would encourage drug use among youngsters.

The "pills" were pastel-colored after-dinner mints. And the bottle was, "about the size of a Red Bull can," said Linda Cobbe, a school district spokeswoman.

A psychologist said that although the fake pill incident probably won't lead to recreational drug use, it's not without potential harm.

"I'm sure this was done with all good intentions," said Kathleen Armstrong, a clinical psychologist in University of South Florida's department of pediatrics division of child development. "But I think the unfortunate consequence of it is, certainly in our culture many people believe a pill is a quick fix."

Armstrong said teaching kids to relax naturally is a better way to ease anxiety.

"Things like breathing, making sure they had a good breakfast and making sure parents put them to bed the night before are ways to help them perform better," she said.

The grandmother saw the pill bottles on each student's desk when she walked into her grandson's fourth-grade class on Thursday. The teacher, Beth Watson, told her the pills were meant to relax the students who would soon be taking the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

After the complaint, the principal went into each class and had a talk with the students about the difference between candy mints and real pills, and instructed them to only take pills given to them by their parents or doctor, Cobbe wrote in an e-mailed response to questions.

Teachers have long used methods to motivate or comfort students during testing, such as letting them bring in stuffed animals on test day, teaching yoga-like relaxation techniques, or passing out peppermint candy.

When asked about this, Cobbe said there are no written guidelines about ways of countering student jitters, but school psychologists give teachers suggestions, with strategies like removing the student from the room and getting them a drink of water, or having them do jumping jacks or other exercises.

Watson and Deborah Falcon, the fourth-grade teachers involved in Thursday's incident, will not be disciplined, school district officials said Tuesday.

Records show Watson, 40, was hired by the school district in 2008. Falcon, 40, was hired in 2003. Neither could be reached for comment.

About 15 parents talked to Westchase Elementary School's principal Scott Weaver in support of the teachers, Cobbe said.

Tuesday the school conducted the FCAT writing exam for fourth-graders, eighth- and 10th-graders. The test affects a school's overall performance rating and bonuses for teachers.

Armstrong said this time of year she sees an uptick in parents and children with increased anxiety about the FCAT. Many look for a psychological diagnosis that will result in their child falling under the 504 Plan, a federal law for children with disabilities that allows for accommodations in school, such as more time to take a test.

Her advice for jittery parents and educators: "The biggest thing is not putting so much focus on it. … Stressing kids out about it and stressing their parents and teachers is not the answer," she said. "You teach kids skills, you make learning fun and you help them feel confident as learners."

Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at nhutcheson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3405.

Fake pills for FCAT stress causes stir at Hillsborough elementary school 02/09/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 9, 2010 11:33pm]
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