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Test Anxiety: How You Can Help

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Updated on Mar 14, 2011

Whether we like it or not, standardized testing is a reality that children are forced to deal with. Schools practice test-taking strategies all year long to prepare for that looming date of state assessments. The focus of learning has shifted from teaching children solely coursework, to teaching kids coursework as well as tricks and techniques for bumping test scores up as high as possible. But when all that preparation is said and done, test time arrives and students are still left to their own devices.

Students with high cognitive abilities but a low ability to deal with anxiety may find themselves doing poorly on standardized tests. Study after study has shown that test anxiety is a large contributing factor to psychological distress, personal insecurity in students, as well as underachievement and failure in academics. Moreover, it can take a toll on kids' physical well being. The most common physical symptoms of text anxiety are stomachache, headache, irritability, anger, and even depression.

For some students the stress comes from their need to answer every question correctly. For others, it is the test-taking situation itself that causes their anxiety. The controlled and highly structured atmosphere makes some children nervous. This is not the type of anxiety that makes some people win a race or perform well in a school play. Test anxiety can be crippling for some students, and ultimately mask or hamper their academic abilities.

While it’s true that students are forced into a less than ideal learning environment, parents are not helpless in dealing with a child’s test-taking anxiety. Noticing the physical symptoms of stress in your child can help you to intervene. But what are some things that you can do once you know they have anxiety?

First of all, don’t wait until the test is upon you to add “attain academic excellence” to your child’s list of daily chores. Keep up with your child’s learning all year long. Parents are often the first to notice when their kids are having trouble with homework. Staying on top of your child’s academics is a good way to help your child feel supported and in control of an upcoming test-taking situation.

If you know your child is prone to anxiety, work out a system of relaxation techniques. Special Education Teacher Jennifer Satin from the South Colonie School District in New York, prepares her students for tests by teaching them simple ways to relax. “All year long I work on relaxation techniques with many of my students and shown them how to take a few moments to calm themselves by visualizing a calm and comforting place for them.” This helps to keep the child in control of her own environment, and keeps her focused on the task in a calming way.

For example, when faced with the reality of a classroom with test papers in front of her, encourage your child to picture something considerably more appealing, such as a beach with a gentle breeze and calming waves. Here are some other simple ways you can help your child work through test anxiety:

  • Help distract your child from what's making her anxious. Once your child’s school has taught the academics needed to do the test, your job is to help her keep her mind off of it for a while. There is no use in cramming for a standardized test that you've already taken months to prepare for. Even if your child is worried about attaining perfection, Satin recommends that students give themselves a break before the test so they can get their minds off any anxiety they may be feeling. She says, “If it’s in your brain, great. If it’s not, then just try your best.”
  • Encourage positive thinking. Practice those relaxation techniques and encourage your child to think positively about the test. Remind your child how happy she’ll be when it’s over. Focus on the sense of accomplishment she'll feel after completing the test. Even a reward system such as a family outing for ice cream when the test is over can give your child something to look forward to, thinking positively about the end result rather than thinking negatively about the test itself.
  • Make sure that your child has a healthy breakfast. You've heard it a million times, and that’s because it works! It's impossible for anyone to keep focused on difficult task (especially a whopper of an exam!) without fuel for the body and mind. A healthy breakfast can help kids get the nutrition they need to tackle the test and keep their mind focused and their tummies full. Protein with a little bit of carbohydrates is a great way to get the mind started for the day. Eggs and toast will serve your child’s mind much better than a bowl of sugary cereal.
  • Be sure your child gets enough sleep. Staying focused for several hours is no easy task for anyone. If you’ve ever tried to stay focused at work for 8 hours after a sleepless night with an infant, you can begin to understand what children go through at school without proper sleep. Be sure your child gets 8 to 10 hours of sleep the night before a big test, and several days beforehand as well. A rested mind simply helps a person to think better.

And a little perspective goes a long way. Satin says “I always tell my students that the test is really to see how well the teachers are doing…this seems to take the pressure off many of the students I work with.” No matter what the test or what the task, it's important to be supportive of your child when she's feeling anxious. That alone will go a long way in making her feel better.

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