It's the morning of the state assessment test and your first grader has inexplicably come down with a stomach-ache. Is it a coincidence, or is he suffering from anxiety about his exam?
According to the Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, kids as young as 5 may feel apprehensive about taking exams. If your child is test-phobic, test anxiety solutions should be tailored to suit his age, because very young children are less likely to be familiar with the testing process itself. "Anxiety can develop not because kids don't know 'the answer', but because they do not understand the question OR what an answer should look like", says Mike Haykin, director of learning support for the Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Parents should recognize that anxiety "triggers" can be very different in the early years. Here are a few things you can do to recognize the signs your kid is stressing about tests.
- Tummy-ache, or test-phobia? Unlike their older peers, younger children often don't have words to spell out their fears. It's common for little learners with test anxiety to complain of headaches, stomach-aches, or other vague symptoms. Pay attention to the nature and frequency of these complaints and to the events that trigger them. Does he tend to feel sick on test days?
- Emotional red flags. Kids experiencing test anxiety may be lethargic, suffer from insomnia, misbehave, have persistent nightmares, or fear being left alone. Take note of when and how long these symptoms occur. If they happen around exam day, your child may be terrified to put pencil to paper at school.
- Stay positive. If you're frazzled about state tests, wringing your hands and quizzing your child en route to school, you may be adding to his fears. "Kids often absorb the emotion that surrounds them" says Haykin. "Parents need to understand that performance on a specific test is not a measure of the value of the child or the parent". Take a deep breath, tell your child that you know he'll try his best, and keep testing in perspective. One exam slip-up won't make or break a young student's academic career.
If you think your kid is agonizing about his next exam, here are ways you can help alleviate his fear.
- Keep it casual. Instead of trying to "reason" with your first grader about his upcoming test, use your tone of voice to soothe him instead. Keep your tone light as you talk about testing, and allow the conversation to happen naturally. Remember, he's just now learning the basic concepts of success, and he'll pick up on your attitude when you talk about school.
- Alleviate fears of the unknown. Mystery and uncertainty, like a big imagination in a dark room, are big sources of stress in young kids. Give your child as much information as you can in the weeks leading up to the test, without explaining that you're prepping for a big exam. When talking about tests, use the same neutral tone that you use to talk about soccer practice, art class and other school activities.
- Stick to short study times. Help your young student study in ways that won't challenge his short attention span. Research from the University of Illinois has shown that 15 to 20 minutes is about the longest amount of time that a 5 to 7-year-old can study for a test in one sitting. Go through flash cards, class assignments and other materials with your child, but stick to a reasonable time limit. Making him study for longer than he's developmentally able to handle is counterproductive and may heighten anxiety.
- Create a comfy work area. Designate a special place for studying, and ask your child if he'd like to pick out school supplies for his space. Involving him in the design process will foster positive feelings about sitting down and getting to work. Turn off the TV and remove video games from his area while he studies. By explaining that it's easy to get distracted, he won't think of this as a punishment.
- Combine test prep with family time. Unlike teenagers, very young children welcome the undivided attention of their parents - they see it as a positive thing. Make study with your child fun by using engaging tools like flash cards or study games. Get siblings and other family members involved.
- Recognize what's normal—and what's not. If your child has repeated, severe anxiety about tests, have him evaluated by a professional, and brainstorm possible solutions together. Early intervention can make a big difference, as he'll be expected to tackle more standardized tests as he progresses through school.
Starting school for the first time is a source of stress for kids for many reasons, such as dealing with being away from mom, or getting used to being around lots of kids. With early recognition and intervention, test anxiety solutions can be managed successfully. Getting your child comfortable with tests will help get him on the road to a bright academic future.