January is a time of opportunity, especially for students. It’s not only the start of a new year, but also the start of the second half of the school year. As students begin the academic year’s second half, those who may have had challenges in getting good grades during the first two quarters, have the time and the opportunity to end the school year on a high note.
Often, the issue a child faces is not about learning; it’s about being tested. With all the standardized tests students have to take, plus tests in each subject, kids who find test-taking causes anxiety could be stressed throughout most of the school year. That stress most often translates into a poor showing on tests, even when the student knows the material on which they’re being tested.
Psychology Today says that 16-20% of students suffer from high test anxiety, with another 18% showing signs of moderately high anxiety when being tested. The result of test anxiety is that the student freezes when taking a test; their working memory of the material is reduced, and they experience confused reasoning and an increase in errors. Those with test anxiety perform an average of 12 percentile points below their more relaxed peers.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) gives the following as causes for test anxiety:
- Fear of Failure – Sometimes, parents inadvertently make a child feel like their self-worth is tied to their academic performance. A student’s focus on doing well can trigger stress and anxiety.
- Lack of Preparation – It’s not unusual for children to wait until the last minute to prepare for a test or an exam. When a child faces a test and feels unprepared, the resulting stress can trigger test anxiety.
- Test-Taking History – Students who have previously performed poorly on tests—no matter the reason—may face future tests with trepidation and anxiety, spiraling into full-blown test anxiety early in their academic career.
The symptoms of test anxiety can be extremely scary and confusing for young students:
- Physical – Headache, diarrhea, nausea, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, excessive sweating, light-headedness can occur. Test anxiety can also lead to a panic attack.
- Emotional – Fear, anger, helplessness, inadequacy, self-doubt and disappointment are often the emotional responses to test anxiety.
- Cognitive/Behavioral – Trouble concentrating, fidgeting, difficulty concentrating, blanking out on familiar material can all take place. According to VeryWell Mind, in some cases, students will eventually drop out of school just to avoid the source of their fear and stress.
What can parents do to help their children face tests in more relaxed and confident way?
Make the Material Relatable – Children are, by their nature, a bit self-involved. That’s not an insult, it’s due to their lack of familiarity with the world outside of their experiences. Consequently, kids will remember, and feel comfortable with, things they can relate to. Parent Toolkit says, “When children make connections between the new subject they are learning and what they already know, stronger links bind the new with the known. You can help your children link new learning to the ‘maps’ of related memories already present in their brains.” Ask your student about the material which will be covered on an upcoming test and make connections between the material and previous events in their lives, familiar things around the house, or current events.
Make Sure They’re Prepared – Get a schedule of upcoming tests and what will be on them. That may not be possible for standardized tests, but the confidence they gain from feeling relaxed and doing well on their academic tests will translate to standardized tests.
Help Them Stay Positive – Kids’ emotions can run from happy to sad, from positive to negative quickly. Do what you can to keep your student positive by pointing out previous successes, by reviewing their strengths, and by giving examples of the rewards a challenge can bring.
The Princeton Review has a list of tips for test takers of any age. They say children should:
- Get a Good Night’s Sleep – Nine to ten hours of sleep each night, including the night before the test, is what’s best, and can be more beneficial than staying up late cramming for a test.
- Fuel Up – Eat a nutritious breakfast on the day of the test and take energy-giving snacks.
- Arrive Early – The anxiety caused by being late will just add to the child’s test anxiety. Pack everything you’ll need the night before so that the morning of the test you’re relaxed and ready.
- Read Carefully – Read the instructions and the answers before proceeding. There’s nothing worse than getting halfway through an answer and realizing that you didn’t understand the question.
- Dive In – Staring at a blank sheet will only increase anxiety. As soon as the teacher tells you to start, skim for questions you know you know. Answering a couple of easier ones will help build confidence.
- Don’t Watch Others – It doesn’t matter what other students are doing so don’t worry about them. Focus on the job at hand and see if you can make other students disappear.
- Watch the Clock – It’s easy to spend too much time on one question, which doesn’t allow sufficient time for the rest of the test. Watch the clock so you can judge the proper amount of time to spend on each question.
Most importantly, children should know that tests are the only way to show how much they know, and to show how smart they are. Tests are an opportunity and not something to fear.