MANATEE -- The auditorium at Ballard Elementary looked like the soundstage for an exciting game show Wednesday morning as fifth-grade students enthusiastically prepared for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
The morning of motivational team-building games was led by game on Nation, a Bradenton-based firm that teaches leadership skills and confidence to schools as well as clients such as the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Lakers, Florida State University football and the U.S. military.
The Ballard event was meant to instill confidence and calm the nerves of fifth-graders before the upcoming FCAT.
"How many of you think the FCAT is the scariest monster of a test there is?" asked Chris Friday from game on Nation.
Almost every hand went up.
"It is what you make it. I'm here to give you a sense of confidence and 'I got this,'" Friday said.
Many of the games, including one where students design a hat to sell, focus on speaking with assurance in scenarios where there is no right or wrong answer.
Students were not quizzed on textbook material. The games gauged their own self-confidence.
Friday told the students to applaud for each other "as if it was the most brilliant answer you have heard in your entire life."
"There will be times when you are put on the spot and have to deliver, but doesn't it feel better when people respond this way?" Friday said. "I challenge you to be an encourager to all and lift each other up. Treat your friends like they are brilliant, and they will do great things."
On tests where there are right and wrong answers, Friday said a sense of ownership keeps students from getting "psyched out." In other words, the test can be viewed as a chance for students to show what they know.
"They already have the answers and the knowledge," Friday said. "When they are confident in those moments, their intention will determine the outcomes."
The day also gave insight into how individual students act under pressure when there is a time limit on finishing an activity, especially in a game of boys versus girls that requires teammates to work together to spell out words based on clues.
"Eighty-five percent of the time, this game is won by the girls," Friday said.
Friday said girls tend to stay more calm, cool and collected, while the boys tend to show more signs of distress.
"There will be moments that are tough and difficult, and how you handle them will say a lot about you," Friday told the students. "Your teacher has prepared you. You just have to show what you know."
Fifth-grader Billy Dickey, 10, said he is prepared to walk into the test with poise and self-assurance.
"We learned to not be shy and to work as a team," Billy said. "I think I will be very confident. I'm going to stay calm, not be nervous and eat a good breakfast."
Friday said right or wrong, the FCAT is the system in place, and his company does what it can to ease the stress that comes with the hype.
"There is a lot tied to this test and the teachers are under pressure, too," Friday said. "With that combination, it can be like a pressure cooker, and it becomes not as easy to function."
Game on Nation will revisit Ballard Elementary for a session Wednesday with the teachers on how to keep students engaged and build high-energy skills in the classroom.
Amber Hatch, a fifth-grade teacher at Ballard Elementary, said fifth grade is a tough year for her students.
"In fifth grade, there are changes going on in your head and your body," Hatch said. "They start to feel less comfortable in front of their peers."
Hatch said game on Nation activities help students feel more at ease getting up in front of their classmates, despite the fear of possibly being wrong.
For the game on Nation teacher session, Hatch said she is looking forward to learning more child friendly communication in the classroom. She said she also hopes the sessions will help forge a stronger bond among the faculty and staff.
"I hope to build even more relationships within the school and build a better sense of community than we already have," Hatch said.
Wednesday was game on Nation's third visit to Ballard Elementary fifth-grade students. The last two sessions were presented by Steve Shenbaum, founder and president of game on Nation, and Blair Bloomston, vice president.
Game on Nation was formerly housed at IMG Academy and continues to address the role confidence in success for elementary, middle and high school students.
"These things didn't leave us as adults," Friday said. "Sharing your voice is something that resonates with all age groups."
The FCAT is scheduled for April 28-30 for third-graders. The FCAT reading test for fourth- and fifth-graders and the FCAT math and science for fourth-, seventh- and eighth-graders is April 30-May 2. The FCAT reading for eighth- and ninth-graders and the FCAT math for fifth- and sixth-graders is May 7.
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.