It’s spring time and many of us are excited to have warmer weather, longer days, and sunshine! For children and adolescents in school, spring time may be synonymous with “crunch time” as they prepare to do their best on end of the school year tests and exams. K-12 students today face some extreme pressure to perform well on high-stakes tests that may determine whether they pass a course or even their grade. Many students experience anxiety around testing and it is important for us to support them through this potentially scary time.
All anxiety is not bad. Most children experience some nervousness during a test and this can help motivate them to study and perform well on the assessment. However, anxiety can increase to a level that stops helping and begins to interfere with a student’s ability to show what they actually have learned. This is called test anxiety and can cause a child or teen to experience negative physical, emotional, and cognitive symptoms. For example, someone experiencing high levels of test anxiety may have headaches, nausea or other digestive symptoms, sweaty palms, or difficulty sleeping. A child with test anxiety may display irritability, excessive crying, unusual anger, or become easily frustrated. Students may also express negative opinions about their intelligence and academic potential.
It is important to understand what actions increase and decrease a child or teenager’s test anxiety. In school, a student who performs poorly on an exam may be viewed as a lazy student or someone who does not study enough. While this could be the case, it is worthwhile to investigate the student’s emotions around testing. Telling a child to study harder will likely increase their test anxiety as they may feel disappointed in themselves as well as having feelings of letting their teachers and parents down. Scare tactics like constantly reminding students that they will fail their grade if they fail the test can certainly cause test anxiety to increase. Forcing children to stay in their rooms for hours each evening will also likely increase their level of anxiety.
The key to helping a child who experiences anxiety is to educate, normalize, and validate their feelings. Tell the child that they are not the only person who experiences these feelings. Assure them that they are not strange or weird because they worry so much about tests. There are several things parents and caregivers can do to support their child through test anxiety.
Listen. What is your child or teen saying about school and upcoming tests? It’s alright to ask them how they are feeling about the tests. Younger children may be more likely to engage in a drawing or painting activity to express their feelings. Sit with your child and ask them to draw their feelings about the test. Explain that everyone has anxiety and that it is a natural body response. It may be helpful to call the anxiety by name. Validate their feelings of anxiety and tell them you understand. Refrain from adding pressure by saying things like, “If you study, you’ll be fine.” Provide a comfortable space for your child to talk about their fears.
Practice relaxation strategies. Help children practice relaxation strategies when they worry or become afraid. Simple, slow deep breathing can be very helpful for children during a time of anxiety. Stretching can also be effective in reducing anxiety. Visual imagery is a process in which a child or teen closes their eyes and imagines taking a trip to a place that makes them calm and happy. While they visualize being at the “magical” place, encourage them to think about what they see, hear, feel, smell, and taste. Spending a few minutes visualizing a trip to somewhere different can be helpful in reducing anxiety.
Have some fun. It is important to make home as stress-free as possible for students who are worried about an upcoming exam. Perhaps doing something together as a family like going to a movie, playing a board game, or engaging in a sporting activity will help children and teens relax. Continue to encourage and listen to children as they share feelings and thoughts.
Test anxiety can cause children and adolescents to have poor academic performance, dread going to school, and develop a low self-esteem. School counselors are an excellent resource for students with test anxiety. School counselors are trained mental health professionals that have specific skills to help children of all ages with academic, career, and personal/social development. Please contact your child’s school counselor to talk about additional ways to respond to test anxiety.
Jonathan Ricks, a National Certified Counselor,
Licensed Professional Counselor, and
Licensed School Counselor
is an Assistant Professor of Professional School Counseling
at UNC Pembroke.
Jonathan Ricks, a national certified counselor, licensed professional counselor, and licensed school counselor
is an assistant professor of Professional School Counseling at UNC Pembroke.