Is your kid stressing out about the upcoming state test? Here’s how to help test anxiety in children and go into that test with confidence.
A few years ago, one of my fifth grade students told me she didn’t want to take the state test.
She couldn’t fall asleep last night.
All she could think of was how hard the math practice problems were and she was petrified.
She knew that she couldn’t do them. In fact, she had difficulty understanding them – English was her second language. At home, her family only spoke Spanish.
20 minutes into the test she waved me over.
“Mrs. Crohn, my stomach hurts.” Her head hovered above her tan desk and her face looked a bit pale.
What could I say? This whole test had such strict security that students could only enter and exit the room accompanied by an adult aide. We were sharing the aide between 6 teachers and no one was available to take her to the nurse.
I had to say, “I’ll keep an eye out for Mrs. Johnson. Just do the best you can.”
Mrs. Johnson didn’t get back in time. My student threw up all over her test.
And to add to her embarrassment – and ridiculousness of the whole testing situation – the custodian had to come in and place the test in a sealed plastic bag to prove that it was actually destroyed.
Was my student ill with some virus? Nope, her nerves about testing had taken over.
She had severe test anxiety at 10 years old.
Maybe your child’s test anxiety symptoms aren’t as extreme. But, your kid may tell you about her:
- heart beating fast
- Inability to sleep
- Extreme worry about test day
- Sweating when not hot
What exactly causes test anxiety in children?
No one knows exactly. However, researchers have a few theories. Text anxiety may be caused by:
- children comparing their achievements to others and not doing as well as they would like, or
- the temperment of the child to react strongly to failure, or
- adults making unrealistic demands on children at a young age (for example, forcing them to sit through 4 hours of testing a day for a week) and then reacting negatively to their failures.
Overall, it seems that some children are more predisposed to test anxiety than others. The more anxious your child is generally, the more she may be affected.
- Fears being evaluated
- Won’t attempt challenging tasks because of the risk of failing, or
- Avoids criticism
She is more at risk to have test anxiety.
But the question becomes, what can you do RIGHT NOW to help her?
Test Anxiety Strategies for Kids: The basics
First, a quick review of good test taking strategies.
You probably know these by heart as you’ve scoured the internet for something to remove the pain of testing from your kid.
So, I’ll be brief. Make sure your child:
- eats a well balanced low-sugar breakfast
- goes to bed at reasonable time the night before
Basic, but totally essential to do before a big test.
Ok, now let’s tackle the good stuff:
Go in with a plan
Many state tests today are given on computer and give kids unlimited time to complete them. This is intended to reduce test anxiety.
In reality, our kids who ache to “do their best on the test” overanalyze and take WAY longer than they need to.
They seek perfection when really all the state test needs is good enough.
Of all my years in the classroom, the students who worried most about the test were the ones that I had zero concerns about passing.
If your child tends to stress about the test, sit down with her and develop a solid plan for taking it.
For a writing test, it may look something like this:
- Read the question
- Brainstorm ideas
- Pick 3 GOOD ENOUGH IDEAS
- Write first draft
- Read and correct
- Write final draft
A solid effort on a writing test should take anywhere between 45 minutes and an hour and a half – that’s it.
The time spent on the test is no reflection of the child’s skill whatsoever. Remember we are aiming for GOOD ENOUGH with state tests, not BEST.
Stress the NON-Importance
Yes, yes… your child has probably been hearing “do your best on the test” for months now.
For your test anxious child, I recommend a different approach.
Tell her that this test has no lasting effect on her future – which is completely accurate.
And if she struggles with test anxiety, she needs to know that.
And she needs to hear it multiple times.
Test results are usually reported in four categories:
- Falls Far Below
- Approaching Benchmark
- Meets Benchmark
- Exceeds Benchmark
Yes, it is a nice pat on the back to receive exceeds, but it’s not critical.
The main thing that these scores do is tell the community how the school performs in educating it’s students.
Your child does not need a slam dunk on this test. Just a good enough – which if she’s already this conscientious about her score, I’m sure she’s doing.
Remind kids of what they did
Odds are that this is not your child’s first testing experience.
Remind them of the scores that they received on tests in the past. For example, how they worried before their last math test and they got an A.
How every test before this one they have passed.
Bring up all those good memories.
Now, ask them to think of a time where they have done the work expected of them and completely failed.
(The question will stump them)
Anxiety happens as a result of a disconnect between the right side of our brain (which controls strong emotions) and the left side (which controls logic).
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According to the book, The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, the connections between these two sides of the brain are still developing in kids. Our children tend to be ruled more by the right side which causes tantrums and anxious thoughts.
As parents, we can help these sides work together by asking our kids to tell us of past testing experiences and what the outcomes were.
This helps their brain make connections between their baseless fears and probable outcomes based on their prior experience.
Sniff the flower, blow out the candle
Right before the test, you child might still feel that rapid heartbeat and fluttery stomach. That’s why it’s good to have one more tool at their disposal.
Deep breathing is proven to lower anxiety by decreasing the heart rate and providing the brain with much needed oxygen.
Teach your child to breathe in through her nose to the count of3 and then blow out through her mouth for the count of 5.
Or as my son’s preschool teacher explains it: “Sniff the flower. Blow out the candle”
If she feels anxious at any time during the test, she can always close her eyes and retreat into her breathing.
When she feels her heart rate go back to normal, tackle that test again.
State tests are super stressful with unbelievable pressure put upon young students.
By focusing on their own plan, realizing the relative non-importance of testing, remembering their past performance and practicing deep breathing, your child will learn to control her test anxiety.
And state testing will be this little blip on the school calendar that passes without much drama. That’s the goal.
You got this!