Learning is fun. Tests are not, but they are a necessity. Tests help teachers see how well your child understands important learning concepts. And, of course, they help decide the grades that go on your child’s report card.
However, the phenomenon known as test anxiety can affect student performance. Children might know the subject well, but if worry prevents them from demonstrating that on tests, their grades suffer.
Fortunately, tips for overcoming test anxiety can help children approach test time with confidence. As their anxiety eases, their grades will rise, along with their self-esteem.
Understanding the Causes and Symptoms of Test Anxiety
The first step in dealing with the problem is knowing the causes and symptoms of test anxiety. Test anxiety can be caused by fear of failure, lack of preparation, a history of poor test performance, high pressure to pass and the perfectionism of setting overly high expectations for yourself.
The symptoms can be easy to overlook or misinterpret. Children might not say out loud that they’re anxious about their tests, so watch for these signs.
- Physical symptoms: Headache, nausea, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, lightheadedness and feeling faint. Your child might have panic attacks that manifest in intense fear.
- Emotional symptoms: Feelings of stress, fear, helplessness, disappointment, racing thoughts and the mind going blank. Negative thoughts might lead them to obsess over past poor performance on tests, the consequences of failure, feelings of inadequacy and helplessness.
- Behavioral and cognitive symptoms: Difficulty concentrating, negative thoughts, comparing yourself to others and procrastinating.
Tips for Dealing With Test Anxiety Before the Exam
Taking control of the situation in the days and weeks leading up to the test can ease anxiety. Try these tips.
- Keep the Pressure Low: One of the most valuable things a parent can do is to deemphasize the importance of testing. Yes, tests matter, but harping on the big test that’s coming up only raises stress levels. Test anxiety occurs when children worry about how they’ll hold up to scrutiny. Turn the tables by not emphasizing the date, and avoid saying things like, “The big test is coming up on Tuesday.” Instead, talk to your child about why they’re taking the test. Make it positive by saying that this is their chance to show all the things they’ve learned about a new subject.
- Create a Regular Routine: Part of deemphasizing is making tests as routine to your child as brushing their teeth. Reinforce the importance of regular bedtimes, good nutrition and healthy breakfasts every day — not just on test day. Making test day feel routine teaches children that there will be challenges in their lives but they can handle them as a matter of course.
- Start Preparing Early: Lack of preparation can cause test anxiety, which leads to procrastination in studying. It’s a vicious circle that can be broken through careful planning. Help your child create a schedule, working backward on the calendar from the day of the test to a start date for studying. Build in time for unforeseeable obstacles and delays. Encourage your child to ask for help as soon as they find themselves stumbling over a concept or idea. Take the time to play-act through test scenarios. Look for practice tests and samples, giving your child a chance to become familiar with formats and expectations.
- Have a Healthy Start to the Day: Test day is not the time to break down healthy daily routines. Don’t break out the sugary cereal or let your child cram for the exam all night. Keep your child on the routine you’ve established, so they get a good night’s sleep, wake up refreshed and have a healthy breakfast that provides energy and wards off hunger pangs. Exercise helps, too, because, as studies have shown, activity jump-starts brain activity in children.
Tips to Overcome Test Anxiety in the Moment
When it’s time to take the test, anxiety can still diminish your child’s grade. You can give your child a toolbox of self-management skills to minimize anxiety.
- Slow Down and Read the Directions: Most tests have a time limit, putting even more pressure on your child. They might feel the only way to get through it is to dive in without thinking, never coming up for air. Instead, teach your child to stop and read all directions. Think about any instructions the teacher gave, and don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t understand what you’re supposed to do next.
- Practice Relaxation Techniques: First, breathe. Teach your child to take a breath, feel where it is in the body, and then let it blow away stress as it leaves through the lips. As one behavioral health therapist puts it, “You have to breathe anyway. You might as well do it deeply.” Your child can also calm the body by tightening muscles of the arms and legs and then releasing them, or closing their eyes and counting to 10. They can even ask permission to stand and stretch, to give the body a break.
- Focus on Positive Self-Talk: Avoid thinking about past mistakes or future worries. Instead of thinking, “I absolutely have to get an A,” think, “I did everything I could to prepare and am doing my best.” Turn negative thoughts into positive ones, thinking something like, “I’m not sure about this answer, but that’s OK. I’ll work on the next question instead.” If your mind starts to wander and fret, bring it back by thinking only of that moment, such as, “I am at my desk. It is 2 o’clock on Tuesday.”
- Keep Moving Through Difficult Questions: The child who struggles too much with one question is slowing down the whole test, but they might feel that they’re supposed to answer all the questions in order. Teach your child that it’s OK to skip over a question that stumps them. If they move on and circle back later, they might find that their mind has cleared and the answer is apparent. If they still don’t know, it’s better to take a guess than leaving a blank, because after all, their guess might be right.
How to Relax When the Exam Is Over
When the test is finally over, celebrate. Instead of making your child dive back into schoolwork, do something as a reward for all the hard work they did to prepare for this day. Plan an afternoon at the skating rink, or let your child pick the movie for family movie night. If anxiety starts to creep back in while your child waits for the test results, return to the basics of self-management and relaxation. Take a breath. Remind yourself that the test is over and there’s nothing you can do to change the results. Focus on the moment, and prepare for the next assignment or — sigh — the next test so that you’ll approach it with confidence.
Support for Student Testing at CCA
At CCA, learning is personalized to the interests, passions, goals and challenges of each student. Lessons are designed to engage your child’s unique learning style. Test anxiety diminishes because students are curious to learn more and eager to show off what they’ve learned. Our teachers view tests as a powerful tool for working with parents and students to customize education and adapt the learning plan to meet every challenge and opportunity. Contact CCA today to learn how we help students succeed on test day and support academic growth for all students and their families.