Tests can be very effective at helping children learn, especially if they are designed well. Tests can help one understand what they do or don’t know, which can enhance the process of learning.
Unfortunately, tests can also be one of the biggest sources of anxiety for children. It can even affect older students, such as those in medical school [*], or those taking up other further studies. The symptoms may be all too familiar to you: on the day of the test, you may feel tense and shaky. Your stomach might be in knots and feel a lot of aching.
Students can get so stressed about test-taking that they feel physical, psychological, and emotional symptoms manifest as test anxiety. This leads to more mistakes on tests, confusion, inability to focus, and most of all, a reduced sense of confidence.
But there are ways to make it easier for children experiencing this condition. Here’s how to help kids with test anxiety.
Test Anxiety in Children
Test anxiety is both an emotional reaction and manifests as physical symptoms that interfere with one’s ability to do well on tests. When we look deeper into this condition, we will find that it is actually a type of performance anxiety, which is a feeling of great pressure to do well when performing various tasks.
However, it is important to remember that test anxiety does not equate to one’s ineptitude for learning and test-taking. The condition triggers responses without which children might be able to perform better on a test.
What Causes Test Anxiety in Children?
All types of anxiety in children are reactions to anticipating something stressful. For many children, there is a feeling of fear that accompanies the anxiety as they are afraid of doing poorly and facing any repercussions.
During these times of stress, the body releases adrenaline, which prepares it for danger. This is what causes the physical symptoms that accompany this “fight or flight” response. In this case, the test makes children anxious, so they experience physical symptoms that may be mild or intense depending on their level of anxiety.
Focusing on negative things can also worsen test anxiety. For instance, a child who might be worried about performing poorly might fixate on thoughts about having difficult on the test or even failing. Thinking such thoughts leaves little to no mental space for solving the test questions. This creates a vicious cycle, where negative thoughts increase the feeling of anxiety. More often than not, the result is doing poorly on the test, which feeds back into the cycle.
How Do I Know if My Child Has Test Anxiety?
There are several symptoms that you can look out for if you are worried that your child has test anxiety.
Physical symptoms may include the following:
- Shortness of breath
- Excessive sweating
- Rapid heart rate
- Panic attacks
Emotional symptoms might look like:
- Feeling stressed
- Racing thoughts
- Mind going blank
Test anxiety can also show up through the following behaviors:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Comparing oneself to others
If your child is exhibiting several of these symptoms, then refer to a worksheet or guide on test anxiety coping skills to help them through it.
Ways to Help a Child Overcome Test Anxiety
Apart from using the worksheet as your guide, there are other ways to reduce test anxiety.
Ask questions about how they feel
Start by asking your child how they feel. Often, the process of discussing worries out loud can help kids process their anxiety. Doing so helps them understand the thought patterns that can trigger test anxiety. As a parent or guardian, this can also help you target specific concerns. Asking questions can help you avoid assumptions about why your kids feel anxious.
Go over test-taking basics
Young kids don’t have as much experience with test-taking compared to older students. Test anxiety strategies for elementary students can involve going over test basics, such as following instructions, identifying questions kids can answer right away, and passing over more difficult questions for the time being.
Practice relaxation strategies
Test anxiety can make children very tense and unable to relax. Sometimes it may even trigger separation anxiety at school. By practicing relaxation strategies such as visualization exercises while your child is calm, you can help them use these skills during test day. Have them imagine a place where they feel comfortable and practice deep breathing. This will help your child relax before taking their test.
Encourage positive self-talk
Positive self-talk (also known as cognitive reframing) can help children cope with anxious thoughts related to test-taking. It involves replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. Children may use this during tests when their brain signals that something is too difficult. Rather than saying “I can’t do this,” they can say “I can solve this problem!”
Have breaks in between study sessions
Working with no breaks can tire children out and increase their stress levels. It’s important to let them take a few breaks in between study sessions. Some kids will want to take a nap, while others might prefer playing outside. This will help them feel more relaxed and do better during their exams.
Talk to the teacher
It is important that the teacher knows about the difficulties your child is experiencing. They can help implement strategies, such as covering part of the test paper to make it seem less overwhelming. Teachers can also make the classroom environment less daunting during test taking.
If your child knows that you are there to accept and encourage them, then they may not be as anxious about taking the test. You can acknowledge their fears, but be sure to let them know that they are more capable than they believe. It also helps to leave an encouraging note in your child’s bag or notebook before their test. And as much as possible, try to relax, have fun, and connect with your child in the weeks leading up to the test. It will make them feel more at ease.
Is test anxiety a disorder?
Test anxiety is a type of performance anxiety, which is not a formal mental health diagnosis. However, it is part of social anxiety disorder, which involves the fear of being scrutinized by others.
Can ADHD cause test anxiety?
People with ADHD may have difficulty organizing their thoughts and identifying key information when taking a test. ADHD can lead to test anxiety.
How serious is test anxiety?
Test anxiety can be more detrimental for some people than others. Some children may have severe symptoms while others only have mild test anxiety. Filling up a guided worksheet on test anxiety can help you learn more about your child’s level of distress.
What is the biggest cause of test anxiety?
Underlying anxiety problems, poor study habits, and poor past test performance are some of the biggest causes of test anxiety. Children who connect their self-worth to test scores will feel more pressure and experience test anxiety.
Test anxiety is a very real condition that can affect students of all ages. It is a stress response in anticipation of taking a test, which can really make children quite fearful for a number of reasons. Identifying the causes and symptoms of this condition is important for any parent or guardian to help their child reduce test anxiety.
Using the tips above, you can do many things to relieve your child of test anxiety. However, it is also good to see a professional if your child’s test anxiety does not go away.
- Badrian M, Bazrafkan L, Shakour M. Medical science students’ experiences of test anxiety: a phenomenological study. 29 July 2022.