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Tips to Decrease Test Taking Anxiety in Children

As we come upon the last legs of school and the approaching summer many students and teachers are counting down the days until summer break. For many that means winding down the systematic classroom learning and learning experientially in the environment around them. For others however the thought of the end of school may bring severe anxiety as they are faced with multiple tests some of which will determine their grade placement for the following year.

Some students may feel some effects of anxiety associated with exams. The anxious feeling can occur before the test, while review for the test, during the test or after the test. These anxiety symptoms can range from a nervous feeling like “butterflies” in the stomach, including shaking and/or an increase in sweating. Some students may experience forgetfulness or “blanking out” not remembering the subject that they studied or the problem that they are working on. In some cases individuals can become physically ill, with vomiting or diarrhea. While most students don’t experience anything worse than a nervous feeling, anxiety becomes a problem when it begins to adversely affect their performance on the exam.

For several years in my practice I was a part of a School based counseling program and worked in Behavioral Health with children, adolescents and adults. Below are a few techniques that I have used with clients and family members to decrease test-taking anxiety. They can be tailored to any age group and in some cases be used to decrease anxiety in other areas of ones life.

What you can do:

  • Make sure the child goes to bed at a decent time based on age. Some individuals become easily anxious or frustrated when tired. Conversely, sending an older child to bed too early may cause increased anxiety, as they lie awake thinking about the big test tomorrow.

  • Have a balanced nutritious breakfast for the student. This will be based on their preferences and dietary needs. For those that do not eat meat they might find an alternative source of protein. Some studies have shown that food coloring and chemicals may increase anxiety and hyperactivity in children and adults. If this may be the case for your child replacing highly sugared, brightly colored cereal with something else like oatmeal with apples and cinnamon might help.

  • Acknowledge and address your own anxiety or frustration. It’s ok to have these feelings, as you are concerned about your child. However, keep in mind that your child may not be as mathematically proficient as you the mechanical engineer. Nor will they be like their sibling who passes each math test with an A. Remember do not take it personally. Our children, whom have some similar characteristics as us, also have their own personalities, temperaments and skill sets.

  • Verbalize your well wishes for the student. Many times they are nervous about how their responsible adult will react to their grade. Do this early on. Remind them that even though they had a lower grade previously that does not mean that they will do the same on the next test.

  • The more confidence a child has in their abilities to do well the more likely they will have a better outcome. Being positive and focusing on their other accomplishments will also help foster a positive outlook that can assist them in addressing other issues as they come up in life.

  • Use positive affirmations. Statements such as “I am calm during my tests”, I am doing well on my test” memorized or kept on an index card for the child to focus on before the test may help lessen anxiety.

  • Before the exam students should develop good study habits that are based on their level and type of learning. For visual learners flash cards or pictures may help. You can help children prepare by reviewing the material in advance. This may mean asking your child’s teacher when the tests will be administered.

  • Ask if there is a practice test or format that can be used at home.

  • Go over a little each day. Know the students limits. Studying too much for hours at a time without breaks lowers morale and is less effective that studying in shorter chucks of time with play or snack breaks.

Tips you can explain to students:

  • Arrive at the test location early. Tardiness only causes more stress! Relax, and don’t talk about the test with other students.

  • Some initial tension is normal. Generally when you receive a test, stop for a moment, take several deep breaths, relax, and then start reviewing the test directions.

  • If the test is timed, make a schedule for answering questions. Allow more time for a higher point questions.

  • Pace yourself to get as many questions as possible answered. Don’t speed too much time on any question. If you can’t come up with the answer, move on.

  • Depending on the type of test; if you get stumped on a question or series of questions, move on to questions you can answer (some computerized tests don’t allow going back).

  • Bring those supplies necessary for the exam such as a calculator, pens, etc. avoid sitting near the door or other high distraction places.

Tabby Sapene MSW, LISW-S, is the Integrative Therapist and Author of Mental Alchemy, Owner of Oasis Of The Heart, LLC Integrative Wellness Center in Dublin, Ohio. For more information visit www.oasisoftheheart.com

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