How To Support A Child With Test Anxiety

It’s normal for students to feel nervous before or during a test. But when test time consistently brings symptoms like a headache, shortness of breath or difficulty concentrating, it may indicate something more serious: test anxiety.

Researchers have defined test anxiety as “a physiological condition in which people experience extreme stress, anxiety, and discomfort during or before taking a test.” Children with test anxiety often have an irrational fear of failing their exams, experts say, but they may not share those worries with their parents.

“Often, parents can be pretty in the dark — teachers may see it well before a parent is aware,” says Kate Sheehan, managing director of the UCLA Child Anxiety Resilience Education and Support Center. But parents may notice signs of anxiety in their children — like a headache or upset stomach — on the day or night before a test.

Test anxiety is fairly common, with researchers estimating that somewhere between 25% and 40% of students in the U.S. experience it. And certain tests can be more anxiety-inducing than others — one study found that elementary school students experienced higher levels of test anxiety during standardized tests compared to regular classroom assessments.

[Opting Out of Standardized Testing: What to Know]

If you suspect that your child is one of the many struggling with test anxiety, here are some important things to keep in mind to help manage it.

How to Recognize Test Anxiety

Students with test anxiety will experience many of the same symptoms as any other form of anxiety, but symptoms are specifically tied to exams.

Often, children with test anxiety worry about receiving a poor grade or doing worse than their peers. Research shows that test anxiety can interfere with a student’s performance — and that can ultimately lower their self-esteem, which tends to be correlated with academic success.

Francyne Zeltser, clinical director of psychological services at the Manhattan Psychology Group in New York, notes that test anxiety is a fairly subjective experience, and not all children will experience exactly the same symptoms.

“Very often, we see the physical symptoms of anxiety: the racing heart, the sweaty palms, the tense body, the child might be hyperventilating,” she says. “Other times, you’ll see more of the silent suffering, where … when you look at them, they might just appear to be distracted, but inside they’re struggling.”

Erainna Winnett, a former elementary school counselor in Texas and author of “Outsmart Test Anxiety,” wrote in an email that younger children in particular may not know how to describe that inner struggle, but they will likely be able to describe the physical symptoms they’re experiencing.

Sheehan adds that during a test, teachers might notice that a child seems more on edge than usual or even a bit jittery.

Helping Children Manage Test Anxiety

Although test anxiety might be more evident in the classroom than it home, experts agree that parents can play a role in helping their child manage it. Zeltser says younger children are particularly resilient, as they are still getting accustomed to test-taking. As a result, teaching children healthy ways to cope with test anxiety at an early age can go a long way.

Here are some ways to support your child.

Focus on Time and Stress Management Skills

Experts agree that time and stress management skills help make your child feel more prepared — and less anxious — when it’s time to take a test.

Many children with test anxiety fear that they won’t be able to complete the test in time, so for these kids, focusing on time management skills may help. This can start with test preparation. Winnett says working with planners and calendars, and breaking up large projects into smaller tasks, can be a good way to help students feel prepared in the lead-up to the test.

At exam time, parents can encourage students to move on from difficult problems and come back later in the exam, once they’ve finished all the other, easier questions.

[What Are Executive Functioning Skills and Why Do Students Need Them?]

Zeltser notes that stress management techniques like deep breathing or using a stress ball can also help. Talk to your child’s teacher about tools students can use, and practice deep breathing with your child, which can also be a good way to help ease your child’s nerves the night before.

Avoid Overemphasizing Good Grades

Children with test anxiety may express a fear of disappointing their parents. Winnett says parents may reinforce that fear.

“Often, parents unintentionally pressure their child by constantly saying how smart they are or what a great job they’re always doing,” Winnett says. “Children need to fail. Children need to know the feeling of disappointment; without this feeling, they aren’t able to cope when tasks become difficult.”

Zeltser advises parents to focus on other values — trying your best, for example. If your child comes to you and seems upset about a test grade, Zeltser says parents can reframe these thoughts by telling the child that it’s more important to try hard than it is to get a perfect score on every exam.

Communicate With Educators

Teachers are likely to notice test anxiety earlier than parents are, since test anxiety tends to be more obvious during the actual test than at home.

Talk to your child’s teachers to see if they’ve noticed anything off about your child’s behavior during test time. Things like going to the bathroom frequently or shaky hands during exams could be signs of test anxiety that parents may never see.

[READ: How to Communicate With Your Child’s Teacher]

Zeltser says talking to your child’s teacher about potential accommodations during the test could be a good way to ease your child’s anxiety. She says teachers may be able to provide review sheets prior to the test, allowing your child to practice for the test at home in a more comfortable environment.

Know When to Seek Professional Help

If you’ve tried all of these techniques and nothing seems to help, Sheehan says it might be worthwhile to visit a therapist.

While not all cases of test anxiety will require a specialist’s intervention, she says it’s important to look at the intensity and frequency of test anxiety and how it evolves over time.

“If it’s only happened a couple of times, and the kid readjusts, there’s no need to seek out any support for that,” Sheehan says.

If your child’s test anxiety seems to grow worse with each test, Sheehan says a specialist could be beneficial. Therapists who are trained in techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy will be able to help children with particularly severe test anxiety, she says. Additionally, specialists are better suited to identify the cause of the test anxiety and if it’s related to something bigger.

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