Helping Your Child Overcome Test Anxiety
With the conclusion of the school year getting closer, many of us are looking ahead to end of the year festivities and summer vacation. I think most of us can agree there is a sense of excitement in the air during that period between spring break and summer vacation. However, there are still a few more hurdles for many of our students to jump before they can kick their feet up and take a breather.
While ongoing assessments occur throughout the entire school year, April and May are very busy months for high-stakes testing (think FSA, Final Exams, End of Course Exams, etc.). Whether you agree with your child taking a high-stakes test or not, they more than likely have been spending much of the year preparing for these tests and are aware of how important it is to do well. While many students can roll with it and approach these tests with ease, there are numerous students who experience test anxiety. As parents, it is important to be able to recognize the signs of anxiety and know how to best support our children’s mental health during this oftentimes stressful time of year.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is defined as apprehension or excessive fear about real or imagined circumstances. Words that are often used to describe anxious feelings are worried, tense, and jittery. While anxiety is a normal developmental pattern that all of us experience at one time or another, some of us may have such high levels of anxiety that our overall ability to function is impaired. While a little nervousness can actually motivate a child to study and perform well, more severe anxiety can cause a child to blank out, have difficulty focusing, and experience difficulty recalling information. According to the American Test Anxieties Association, approximately 16-20% of students have high test anxiety, while another 18% experience moderately-high test anxiety.
Symptoms of Anxiety
There are three way that anxiety be manifested: cognitively, behaviorally, and physiologically (see the table below). Oftentimes, symptoms are evident in all three areas.
Primary Characteristics of Anxiety
|Concentration problems||Motor restlessness||Tics|
|Memory problems||Fidgets||Recurrent, localized pain|
|Attention problems||Task avoidance||Rapid heart rate|
|Oversensitivity||Rapid speech||Flushing of skin|
|Difficulty solving problems||Errative behavior||Perspiration|
|Cognitive dysfunctions||Withdrawal||Muscle tension|
|Fear of failure||Perfectionism||Sleeping problems|
|Fear of losing control||Lack of participation||Nausea|
|Thinking rigidity||Failure to complete tasks||Vomiting|
|Hypervigilent||Seeking easy tasks||Enuresis|
Source: National Association of School Psychologists
Strategies to Help Your Child Reduce and Overcome Test Anxiety
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle: Make sure your child gets enough sleep, eats well, and has plenty of opportunity for physical activity.
- Practice relaxation techniques: Deep breathing (“Balloon Breath” technique), guided imagery, listen to relaxing music or sounds, meditation, yoga
- Expressive writing: Encourage your child to write down their worries and fears and leave those negative feelings on the page.
- Do something fun the night before a test: Watch a movie, go out to dinner, play a board game
- Encourage a growth mindset: Teach your child to think of challenges as opportunities to grow and school as a place for them to develop their abilities. Instead of them saying “this is too hard,” encourage them to say “this will take some more time and effort.”
- Ask your child what is making them nervous: Allowing them to express their worries often helps reduce anxiety and will open the door for you to work with your child to develop strategies to reduce their anxiety.
- Review test taking strategies: Oftentimes children have test anxiety because they don’t have basic test taking skills. Practice test taking strategies with them, such as reading through the text, determining what the question is asking, and going back and checking answers.
- Do practice tests: Familiarizing your child with the test will help reduce anxiety. There are many practice tests available online or you can contact your child’s teacher to determine the best method for practicing at home.
- Shift stress views: Remind your child that although they may get sweaty hands or a rapid heartbeat before taking a test, they also experience these same feelings during some enjoyable experiences, such as riding a roller coaster or watching an exciting football game.
- Encourage your child to develop good study habits: Cramming before a test will increase anxiety. Consistently completing school assignments and participating in study sessions will help your child feel more prepared for the test.
- Debrief with your child during a relaxed time after the test: Discuss what strategies may have worked to help with anxiety and what strategies they may want to try again.
- Do not assume that your child is being difficult or that the problem will always go away: Seek help if the problem persists and interferes with daily activities. Your school counselor, school psychologist, or school social worker are good resources to assist you and your child in reducing anxiety.
- There are many children’s books that address the topic of anxiety: Suggested reading includes Testing Miss Malarkey (by Judy Finchler), Wilma Jean the Worry Machine (by Julia Cook), The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes (by Mark Pett), The Anti-Test Anxiety Society (by Julia Cook), Mathsketball: A Story of Test Anxiety (by Erainna Winnett), and Worry Warriors: Anxious Adam Braves the Test (by Marne Ventura)
Overall, being able to recognize the symptoms of anxiety is the first step in helping your child overcome their test anxiety. Trying even one strategy listed above may be enough to ease your child’s nerves when it comes to stressful testing situations and many of these strategies can be generalized to assist in other anxiety-provoking situations. The good news: when given the right strategies and support, children are typically responsive to interventions and are able to successfully overcome anxiety. And learning these coping skills during childhood will arm them with effective tools to support their mental health into well into adulthood.
— written by Shannon Johansen, licensed school psychologist