The Best Weapons for Combating Test Anxiety

They've participated in class, done all of their homework, studied hard, and they think they have a grip on the material. But then the day of the test comes. Suddenly, your son or daughter blanks out, freezes up, zones out, or feels mega nervous. Despite all that studying, your child can’t respond to those questions he or she knew the answers to just last night.

Sounds like a major case of test anxiety. It's pretty normal to feel a little nervous and stressed before a test. Just about everyone does. And a touch of nervous anticipation can actually help us get revved and keep us at peak performance while we're taking the test. But for some people, this normal anxiety is more intense. The nervousness they feel before a test can be so strong that it interferes with their concentration or performance.

Test anxiety is actually a type of performance anxiety — a feeling someone might have in a situation where performance really counts or when the pressure's on to do well. For example, a person might experience performance anxiety when he or she is about to try out for the school play, sing a solo on stage, get into position at the pitcher's mound, step onto the platform in a diving meet, or go into an important interview.

Focusing on the bad things that could happen also fuels test anxiety. For example, someone worrying about doing poorly might think thoughts like, "What if I forget everything I know?" or "What if the test is too hard?" Too many thoughts like these leave no mental space for thinking about the test questions.         

Like other situations in which a person might feel performance anxiety, test anxiety can bring on "butterflies," a stomachache, or a tension headache. Some people might feel shaky, sweaty, or feel their heart beating quickly as they wait for the test to be given out. A student with really strong test anxiety may even feel like he or she might pass out or throw up.

Test anxiety can be a real problem when it prevents children from doing their best. So, how can kids combat the bad effects and keep test anxiety at a manageable level?

Here are some tips for kids that might help.

  • Use a little stress to your advantage. Stress is your body's warning mechanism — it's a signal that helps you prepare for something important that's about to happen. So use it to your advantage. Instead of reacting to the stress by dreading, complaining or fretting about the test, take an active approach. Let stress remind you to study well in advance of a test.
  • Think good thoughts. Science shows that good thoughts can actually help your brain work better. When you feel nervous or anxious, try to remember something that nakes you feel good. Maybe it is your pet or how you felt after a super fun day with your friends. After you remember how you felt, hold that feeling. Pretend you are literally holding it in your heart. Let yourself feel that feeling for 10-20 seconds or more. Try this right before the big test.
  • Get enough sleep. Big tests require a lot of energy and stamina to be able to focus for several hours. Make sure you get at least eight to ten hours of sleep the night before the test.
  • Eat a hearty breakfast. The brain needs a lot of energy to maintain focus on a big test for several hours. Eat a hearty and healthy breakfast, including complex carbohydrates and protein to make your energy last as long as possible. Foods such as eggs, cereal and whole-wheat toast help energize your brain to think more clearly and much longer compared with the fast-disappearing bolt of energy from drinking a soda pop or eating a cookie for breakfast. For a snack food, bring simple foods such as peanut butter and crackers or cheese and crackers  to sustain energy until lunch.
  • Be prepared. Some students think that going to class is all it should take to learn and do well on tests. But there's much more to learning than just hoping to soak everything up in class. That's why good study habits and skills are so important — and why no amount of cramming or studying the night before a test can take the place of the deeper level of learning that happens over time with regular study. Many students find that their test anxiety is reduced when they start to study better or more regularly. It makes sense — the more you know the material, the more confident you'll feel. Having confidence going into a test means you expect to do well. When you expect to do well, you'll be able to relax more during a test.

Here are some specific suggestions for parents help their children manage test anxiety as well.

• Help your child reduce fear and anxiety. This can be accomplished with enthusiasm, praise and, at times, small rewards for giving their best effort.

• Teach your child ways to relax through simple techniques such as deep breathing and meditation. Relaxation is a skill that requires learning and practice, so keep the relaxation practices short and simple. Make it a family activity, where everyone takes the time to breathe deeply.

• Avoid giving excessive reassurance, such as repeatedly saying, “You’ll do great!” Too much reassurance causes anxious children to discredit the parent’s opinion.

• Avoid telling your child exactly what to do. It is more useful to ask your child to come up with a realistic plan for studying and taking the test. Successful completion of the plan enhances a child’s feeling of control and accomplishment, and this will decrease anxiety.

Everything takes time and practice.  Although it won't go away overnight, facing and dealing with test anxiety will help your child manage stress throughout life.