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Managing Your Child’s Test Anxiety

In my third blog this September on school issues, let’s focus on how to understand and manage a child’s test anxiety.

Nervousness during test taking isn’t entirely bad. Some feeling of pressure can help improve performance. Yet overwhelming anxiety leads to decreased performance and perhaps even inability to complete a test. These results can then lead a child to feeling unsuccessful and fear test taking even more.

Underlying anxiety about test taking is a mix of beliefs and emotions — often a fear of failure accompanied by deep feelings of unworthiness tag-teamed by fears of being embarrassed in front of peers.

As neurobiologists tell us, our brain reacts to physical fears (“Watch out, a bear!”) and emotional fears (“Watch out, those girls are teasing you!”) in the same part of the brain. This survival center is powerful, but operates in a simple “on-or-off” manner.

Therefore, when internally generated thoughts of self-criticism arise (“I’m stupid and will flunk this algebra test and everyone will think I’m an idiot.”) this brain function gets turned on to the “fear” or survival mode.

When the brain is triggered into the fear response, all humans react with classic “fight-or-flight-or-freeze” behaviors. In test anxiety, usually it’s the “flight” and “freeze” behaviors. Students report feeling they want to run out of the room and that their brain just does not seem to work. Some report severe panic, with shortness of breath, sweating, muscle tension and feelings of dread and paralysis.

Neurobiologists also report that when the brain goes into “fear” mode, the cortex or thinking part of the brain does not work as well. Called “cognitive narrowing,” this natural reaction leads one to have poor recall, problem solving and deliberative powers.

Unfortunately, many parents, educators and even students view test anxiety by the end results — poor grades — and the child gets labeled as having an intellectual deficit. The sad irony is that the child’s fear of disapproval from others and from himself is so strong that he earns the bad grade he is so concerned about getting, seemingly confirming his worst fears. In reality, the child’s fear is just too strong he just can’t focus and perform well.

Combat test anxiety with your child with these tactics:

  1. As a parent, decrease your anxiety and focus on homework, school performance and grades.
  2. Increase the family’s overall focus on learning for learning’s sake, not to achieve a grade. Model a curious attitude and an attitude for lifelong learning by reading, going to a museum, learning something new.
  3. Teach and practice with your child self-calming skills, such as deep breathing, body awareness, and management of body tension and fidgeting.
  4. Teach cognitive interventions such as positive self-talk: “I am smart. I have studied. I can do this!”
  5. Teach and practice with your child skills such as mindfulness meditation.
  6. Ask your child to consider: “What is the worst thing that will happen if I fail this test?” She should start to see that it really is not such a big deal, even if she did fail.
  7. Ask your child about his fears of failure, his high expectations for himself and his self-image.

Let’s make learning fun, not stressful, for kids!

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