The Parents Guide to Helping Anxious Children Cope with Test Anxiety

testanxietyNever mind drugs, a shoddy home life or an inability to make friends, the top reason students become “scholastically impaired” is that thing called test anxiety. Test anxiety is more than getting a little jittery before a big exam. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) notes it’s a full-fledged psychological condition, a form of performance anxiety from which your child may suffer before a test or any type of challenge.

Test anxiety can hit before, during or after the exam – and may even show up as early as the beginning of the school year if your child knows one of those grand standardized exams is set for his or her grade that year.

While no exact figures are available, the American Test Anxiety Association estimates up to 20 percent of students may be afflicted with severe text anxiety and 18 percent may suffer from a moderately high form of the condition. That leaves only about 60 percent of students without some form of text anxiety.

If your child suffers from text anxiety, he or she is certainly not alone. The chances of test anxiety are also increased if your child already suffers from social anxiety. But your child’s suffering does not have to continue. The more you realize what’s happening when test anxiety hits, the better able you’ll be able to help your anxious child get through it and the less ominous those scary standardized exams or homework challenges will be.

Causes and Effects of Test Anxiety

One of the common causes of test anxiety is not properly preparing for a test, ADAA says. The feeling of being overwhelmed and lost when faced with a major challenge can be enough to send anyone into an anxiety pit, especially if he or she did have time to prepare but simply chose not to.

The type of test anxiety many anxious children endure, however, may have little or nothing to do with preparation. It may erupt even if your child spent hours, weeks or months preparing for the test. It can hit with take-home assignments during which he or she can use the book.

Causes of this type of anxiety may go much deeper than bad study habits. It can stem from that thing called fear.

Fear of failure: Although some children (and adults) look at a challenge as a way to improve themselves, others see it as their potential downfall. This is especially true for students who think their level of self-worth, acceptance and validation are all tied together and dependant on the outcome of a test. 

Example: The middle school student who wept and was afraid to go home when his test grade came back as a B+.

Fear of repeating past poor test performance. One or more bad test experiences can set the stage for test anxiety for years to come. Your child may believe that every test that ever comes down the pike will be as horrific as those that came before. Every instance of the “t-word” thereafter can pump your child’s mind full of negativity and affect his or her performance.

Example: The student who had a particularly bad test in chemistry, his weakest subject, who suddenly starts performing badly on tests in English, his strongest subject.

So what happens when a child suffering from test anxiety is confronted with the beast? 

Students with test anxiety can simply freeze up when faced with a test. Their minds can go totally blank. They may stare at the paper in horror or attempt to guess randomly at answers. Even if students know the correct answers, high test anxiety messes up people’s working memory and reasoning abilities and increases the number of mistakes they make.

“Students with high anxiety perform around 12 percentile points below their low anxiety peers (about six tenths of a letter grade below),” the American Test Anxiety Association reports.

Test Anxiety Symptoms

As with most forms of anxiety, test anxiety can affect your child on the physical, emotional, behavioral and cognitive levels. The ADAA offers a rundown:

Physical: Sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, headache, nausea and diarrhea are common symptoms of test anxiety, as is feeling lightheaded or faint. Hyperventilation or a full-blown panic attack may be part of the mix, making students feel like they cannot breathe or are suffering from a heart attack.

Emotional: Students may become angry, or they may fall into a slump of helplessness, fear and despair. Disappointment is also common.

Behavioral and cognitive: Negative thinking takes the lead as one of the top cognitive symptoms of test anxiety, followed by problems with concentration. Students may start to compare themselves with others, looking around to see who seems to be acing the test, assuming others may be smarter than them.

These symptoms can crop up in people of any age, especially with an intense focus on super-exams for younger and younger students.

“The pressure to do well on achievement tests for college is filtering its way down to lower grades, so that even third graders feel as if they are on trial,” The New York Times Magazine reports.

Genetics and Short-Term Stress

While any test or challenge can create test anxiety, standardized-type tests have a certain flair for making that anxiety particularly intense. Part of the reason for this intensity is the view of a single test, or performance, as the end-all for the overall score.

Class work means nothing. Participation means nothing. Working harmoniously in a group or volunteering to pound erasers after school means absolutely nothing. A student’s entire worth and value is gauged by his or her performance on a single exam. That kind of pressure is enough to drive anyone to the pits of anxiety, although not everyone takes that deep dive.

How your child reacts to such an intense, short-term stress can be partly dependent on a specific gene known as the COMT gene, NYT Magazine says. This particular gene contributes to how quickly or slowly someone’s brain clears dopamine out of its prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for decisions, planning and conflict resolution. Those with the gene that leads to a quick clearing-out are known as the “warriors” while those with a slow clearing-out are dubbed the “worriers.”

Flood the area with dopamine and a person’s brain goes into high drive.

Those who have the quick-acting warrior COMT gene tend to do better under short-term, intense bouts of stress – which is exactly what a standardized-type test tends to offer. While the fast-acting warrior gene works well for short-term stress, laboratory research showed those who have the slow-acting worrier COMT gene do better with other types of cognitive tasks, such as IQ tests, games and puzzles.

A study of Beijing students additionally showed those with the slow-acting gene had an average IQ that was 10 points higher than those with the fast-acting one. Another study out of Taiwan, however, showed students with the slow-acting gene averaged 8 percent lower than their fast-acting gene peers on a national exam.

That may help explain why your smart-as-a-whip, high-IQ child doesn’t seem to score well on intensely stressful standardized exams. It can also clear up why the student who is not all that sharp overall can really kick butt during those same exams.

About half of the population has a mixture of the two types of genetic codes, with an estimated 25 percent holding only the fast-acting warrior gene and another 25 percent having only the slow-acting worrier variety, according to the NYT Magazine.

And regardless of the type of COMT genes your child has, there are several ways you can help reduce test anxiety across the board.

Tips for Helping Your Child with Test Anxiety

A number of helpful hints for helping your child cope with test anxiety come from the NYT article, the ADAA and an article by author and Psychology Today writer Annie Murphy Paul. Some are fairly straightforward while others may take a little – or a lot – of practice. Let’s start with the fairly straightforward batch and work our way upward.

Help your child prepare. Teaching your child effective study techniques and test-taking skills can take care of anxiety that comes from being ill-prepared. It can also help boost your child’s confidence, as it’s typically much easier to meet a challenge when you know you’ve done all you can do to be ready for it.

Study techniques that can be helpful include regular reviews of the material, flash cards and practice tests. Starting regular study sessions a week or two in advance can eradicate the high-stress activity of cramming.

Test-taking techniques that can help include reading each question carefully, going through the entire test to answer questions you know first and going back to the others and cracking tough multiple-choice questions by process of elimination with the answers. Children facing written essay exams can benefit by learning to create an outline of their thoughts before they start writing.

Work on maintaining focus. Since one of the effects of test anxiety is the habit of looking around at other students and thinking everyone is smarter, reviewing focus techniques with your child may help nip that habit in the bud. Reinforce that the only thing that should grab your child’s focus is the test in front of him or her, not the boy in the next seat, the girl in the next aisle or the bird sitting on the window sill.

Check out a number of suggestions in our mindfulness article that can help your child learn to focus. Such a skill can not only make test-taking easier, but it can reduce anxiety in general and enhance the overall quality of life.

Purge anxieties on paper. All that anxiety packed in your anxious child’s brain has to go somewhere, and that somewhere is usually the part of the brain that controls a person’s working memory. Letting the anxiety stay in the brain and fester tends to crowd out other thoughts and decrease the working memory’s effectiveness.

Instead of keeping the anxieties harbored inside, students may do well to purge them by writing them out on paper shortly before the exam.

A study published in Science checked out the effectiveness of having a group of students purge their anxieties on paper before sitting down to take the test. Such purging, known in psychology circles as “expressive writing,” led to a significant improvement in test scores, Annie Murphy Paul reports.

Go for relaxation exercises. A study published in the Journal of School Counseling backed up relaxation techniques as a phenomenal means of reducing test anxiety, according to Murphy Paul. The study had a group of third-grade students lie on classroom mats, close their eyes and engage in focused breathing and muscle relaxation exercises. The group of relaxed students had lower levels of test anxiety than another group that not indulge in relaxation techniques.

Relaxation techniques can consist of any number of ways to reduce stress and anxiety. Common methods include breathing exercises, such as those pointed out in our post Teaching Your Anxious Child to Calm Themselves with Their Breath. You can also try a popular exercise of having children start at their heads and move down through their toes flexing and relaxing every muscle of their bodies.

Another relaxation solution, which can be helpful for the long-term and used on a daily basis, is guided imagery and meditation. Use tips from our meditation and guided imagery for anxious children post to set up a daily practice with your child so you can both reap the soothing benefits.

Change your child’s mindset about stress. Test anxiety may result in stomach full of butterflies and a heart that feels like it’s about to beat out of the chest, but that rush can be used to your child’s advantage.

University of Rochester assistant professor Jeremy Jamieson found this out through a series of experiments with college students primed to take the G.R.E.s, NYT Magazine reports. Jamieson told a group of students that those with anxiety would actually do better on a test – and they did. A switch of mindset that anxiety was beneficial instead of detrimental boosted test scores by 50 points on a practice test and by 65 points on the actual G.R.E.

A total mindset switch does not usually happen overnight, but rather involves the same repeated practice that can benefit all of these suggestions.

One more tip is to stay positive. Here’s where the pep talk comes in. Remind your child that, no matter what happens with any test, he or she is a wonderful, beautiful, worthwhile individual who is deeply cherished and loved.