Managing Test Anxiety

It’s okay to admit it – test-taking is stressful, for students and even for parents. That goes double for standardized testing, when entire schools basically shut down for the testing period. Students lose their sense of consistency as schedules are disrupted. They’re cooped up in classrooms for longer than usual. Their normal methods of coping or relieving stress may be inaccessible to them during this time.

Students of all ages and levels of confidence get nervous around testing. And, they’re not the only ones – teachers, administrators, staff and families all get stressed around this time. Students pick up on that and absorb it along with their own anxiety.

Of course, testing does have legitimate stakes. It can impact placement in classes, college admissions and, critically, the ability to move up to the next grade. To give your children the best chance to succeed – and support their wellbeing – it’s worth taking a few steps.

Be aware of what’s going on.

Knowing the testing schedule is only the first part. It’s important to understand how your child is experiencing the testing – before, during and after. The more you know, and the earlier you know it, the more opportunities you’ll have to help them as needed.

"Life affords no greater responsibility, no greater privilege, than the raising of the next generation."- C. Everett Koop

Talk honestly about the stakes.

Testing has consequences, but it’s important that your children know the real – rather than imagined – consequences. Some children build up the importance of testing far beyond what’s needed, with catastrophic ideas of what could happen. Find out if there are major fears weighing on their minds, or if they simply have questions. You can help them paint a more accurate picture, which likely will help lessen anxiety and put them in a better frame of mind.

Look for signs of severe anxiety vs. a little nervousness.

Most people experience some anxiety before undertaking an important task. Being a little nervous or keyed-up isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, it often helps us perform better. There’s a difference between having butterflies in your stomach and getting physically sick to your stomach, though. If a child is vomiting, crying and shaking or locking up, those are signs of significant distress, and you will want to seek professional help. Therapy, whether long- or short-term, can make a big difference – even in just three to six sessions. A therapist can teach children specific techniques for dealing with their anxiety.

Don't use technology as an emotional pacifier. Media can be very effective in keeping kids calm and quiet, but it should not be the only way they learn to calm down. Children need to be taught how to identify and handle strong emotions, come up with activities to manage boredom, or calm down through breathing, talking about ways to solve the problem, and finding other strategies for channeling emotions.

Work with the school to make a plan.

If your children are experiencing severe anxiety, or if they have special needs, don’t be afraid to talk to the teachers and administrators to figure out an individual plan. It’s in everyone’s best interest to ensure that all children are in the right environment to be successful while test-taking.

Try to avoid expressing negative feelings about testing to your children.

It’s okay if you’re frustrated by the testing process. A lot of people are – including students, parents, teachers and administrators. The logistics can be complicated. The pressure is real. However, testing is required. It simply has to be done. It’s great to reinforce to your children what testing really is (the conversation about consequences) and what it’s not (a determination of their worth as a person). However, if you just need to vent, it’s better to turn to other parents and adults. Knowing that you have negative feelings about what they have to do just won’t help them get it done.

Give your children something to look forward to during testing.

Different children will have different needs and preferences. Some will benefit from a break from their usual activities – like piano lessons or baseball practice. Others may appreciate the continuity of keeping their extracurricular routines, since their school routines are off. Some children may need quiet time, while others may need a chance to run around and burn off some energy, especially if they aren’t getting recreation time at school. Once you figure out what’s best for your children, just be sure to let them know – it may help them get through some long days.

Set up a "gratitude circle" every night at dinner. Go around the table and take turns talking about the various people who were generous and kind to each of you that day. It may sound corny, but it makes everyone feel good.