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How To Help Kids Overcome Test Anxiety

In case you’re not familiar with test anxiety, imagine that you’ve studied and prepared for the big test as much as you possibly could.  Now it’s test day. Your teacher hands you the test and as soon as you see it, your stomach tightens. You draw a blank because nothing on the test looks familiar.  Your mind is racing and filled with thoughts of I’m going to fail and This test is too hard. The more you try to remember what you studied, the more the information slips away.

This is what test anxiety feels like for many children.  The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) defines test anxiety as a type of performance anxiety. It is the nervous feeling people get before and/or during a test that interferes with how well they do on an exam.  Test anxiety prevents kids from thinking clearly which makes it difficult for them to recall information.

Test anxiety is different from the nervousness most people experience in test taking situations.  Some level of anxiety is good because it can motivate people to study and prepare.  However, with test anxiety, the level of worry students’ experience, causes them to under-perform.

Help Kids Overcome Test Anxiety

Why Do Kids Get Test Anxiety?

Test anxiety is brought on when students are overwhelmed by the fear that they won’t do well on an exam.  These kids are usually anxious to begin with and tend to focus on all the bad things that could go wrong in any given situation.  Test anxiety is common in kids with learning disabilities and also in students who are perfectionists.  We also see test anxiety in those students who base their worth on how well they score on a test.  They put so much pressure on themselves to perform that sometimes they end up psyching themselves out.

What Are Some Symptoms of Test Anxiety?

Test anxiety can affect students physically, cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally.  There are a myriad of symptoms and test anxiety manifests itself in different ways for different people.  Here are some common symptoms:

Physical Symptoms

·         Sweating

·         Shaking

·         Shortness of breath

·         Headache

·         Stomach ache

·         Nausea

·         Dry mouth

·         Cold hands

Emotional Symptoms

·         Anger

·         Feelings of helplessness

·         Disappointment

·         Depression

·         Nervousness

·         Stress

·         Feeling overwhelmed

Cognitive Symptoms

·         Negative self-talk

·         Difficulty concentrating

·         Racing thoughts

·         Going blank

·         Comparing self to others

·         Easily distracted

Behavioral Symptoms

·         Procrastination

·         Avoidance

·         Nail biting

·         Fidgeting

·         Pacing

·         Irritability

How Can We Help Kids Overcome Test Anxiety?

According to the findings of a 2003 study, for many children, “test anxiety is a major factor contributing to a variety of negative outcomes including psychological distress, academic under-achievement, academic failure, and insecurity (Harris & Coy, 2003). Given the many negative outcomes associated with test anxiety, it’s important that we find ways to support kids who suffer with test anxiety.

Here are some things we can do to help children who experience test anxiety:

1.       Teach kids how to recognize signs of test anxiety.  Left untreated, test anxiety can become overwhelming, making it difficult for kids to concentrate and focus on a test.  When kids can recognize signs of test anxiety, it gives them a chance to implement coping strategies such as deep breathing, visualization, etc. to help themselves relax. The sooner kids are able to stop anxiety in its track the better.

2.       Teach kids effective study habits and strategies.  When kids are prepared to take an exam, they are better able to manage their test anxiety.  Encourage students to schedule sufficient time prior to the test to study.  If they cram before the test this can make their anxiety even worse.  Teach kids test taking tips they can utilize in a pinch when they feel stuck on a question during the test.  For example, remind them to answer all the questions they know first and then go back to the ones they don’t know.

3.       Practice behavioral relaxation techniques with children.  Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization teach kids how to calm their bodies. Learning and practicing these techniques prior to an exam give kids a way to effectively manage their test anxiety so it doesn’t interfere with their performance.

4.       Assist kids with changing negative self-talk.  Some kids resort to negative self-talk when faced with test anxiety.  They tell themselves things like “I’m such a failure” or “I’m not smart enough to pass this test.” Soon they start to believe these negative statements and before you know it, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They fail the test.  Encourage kids to challenge their negative self-talk by remembering their past success.  This will boost their confidence and the more confident kids feel, the less impact anxiety has on their performance.

5.       Help children put test in perspective.  Many kids base their self-worth on how well they do on a test and put a lot of pressure on themselves to perform well.  They equate failing a test to them being failures.  Explain to kids that although scoring good marks on exams is important, how they do on one test won’t make or break them.

6.       Educate kids about test anxiety.  Teaching kids about test anxiety will help them identify when anxiety is getting in the way of them taking a test so they can ask for help.  Also, some of the symptoms associated with test anxiety, (ex. heart palpitations, racing thoughts, etc.) can be pretty scary. When kids are aware of test anxiety symptoms, they don’t freak out as much when they occur.

I hope you’ve found this information helpful and I would love to hear your test anxiety busting tips for kids.  Please feel free to share your ideas in the comments!


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