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How To Help Children With Test-Taking Anxiety

Some test jitters are healthy, but parents urged to know symptoms of severe anxiety and how to help



While it is common for students to feel butterflies in their stomachs when taking tests, research has found that test anxiety has increased as a result of high-stakes tests, like the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). A U.S. Dept. of Education study found that 61 percent of high school students suffer from test anxiety. More worrisome is that 26% are handicapped by that anxiety, and it can start as young as age seven. A National Louis University (NLU) professor has offered tips for parents to recognize and help children of all ages with test anxiety.


Symptoms of anxiety express physically, behaviorally and cognitively and include dizziness, nausea, fidgeting, faking illness, absence on test day and negative self-statements (e.g. “I’ll never pass this test.”). Most students can overcome test anxiety by simply using good study habits, knowing how to relax during a test and using effective test-taking strategies.


Some degree of student test anxiety is normal,” said Jennifer Cooper, Ph.D., NCSP and assistant professor in National Louis University’s School Psychology program. “When the anxiety causes impairment and students can’t demonstrate the knowledge they have, it’s time to take a closer look, and potentially seek help from a qualified professional.”  


Below are a few of the tips that Cooper, a school psychologist, shared for parents to help recognize and reduce student anxiety when taking tests.


  1. Know when your child’s anxiety needs attention. To do this, Cooper suggests maintaining an open line of communication with teachers. Since teachers are in the classroom and observe students taking tests, they often are the first to recognize symptoms of anxiety.

  2. Initiate age-appropriate conversations and inquire about children’s feelings. Conversation starters can include: “Are you feeling worried about something?” “How often do you have these feelings of worry?” “I noticed that when you were taking your practice test yesterday, you seemed nervous and distracted. Does you feel that way often?”  “When you feel this way, tell me what you are feeling in your body.” For younger students who are not as verbal, parents can share feeling faces as visual helpers for children to identify their feelings.

  3. Identify past coping strategies and build on what has worked. “When you feel this way, how have you had success turning things around?”

  4. Replace negative thoughts with positive self talk. Encourage the adoption of an upbeat, but realistic attitude: “I prepared carefully for this test. If I do my best, I have a good chance of passing it.”

  5. Validate and support their feelings. Let children know that everyone worries to some degree, as a protection and safety mechanism. However, when anxiety goes into overdrive, that is not healthy, and parents are there to support them and get them help.

  6. Create an “early warning system” for children to recognize when their test anxiety is increasing. Are they experiencing nausea, sweating, negative thoughts, etc.?

  7. Practice physical and cognitive relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, closing eyes to imagine a calming place, and engaging in positive self-talk to relax their mind when they start to feel test anxiety.

  8. Follow good health habits. Eat healthy foods and get enough sleep before the test. Also engage in moderate physical activity or exercise before taking the test to reduce tension in the body.

  9. Be prepared. Arrive at the test site early, with extra materials (pens, paper, etc.). Preparation will eliminate worry about small details that distract students from their ultimate goal of doing their best on the test.

  10. Focus on good study skills and test-taking strategies, and recognize that these skills are not explicit for all students. Examples of these skills include:

    1. Create a quiet, neat study area.

    2. Study from good notes.

    3. Select a time during the day when you often have the most energy, and schedule study sessions at this time.

    4. Recite information out loud to embed it in their memory.

    5. Take practice exams.

    6. On timed tests, skip difficult items and return to them last as time permits.


    February 2017


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