Test Anxiety: Q&A With Dr. Mary, School Psychologist

Mary Rosen

The school years are more complex than ever. If it's not the curriculum, it's the relationships. Dr. Mary Rosen is here to provide answers to your most pressing school issues. She is a school psychologist, licensed counselor, graduate school instructor, and parent.

Today, Dr. Mary is talking about test anxiety at school and provides several useful tips for parents of children who get anxious about test-taking.

Q: Dear Dr. Mary: My 3rd grade son gets very anxious when he has to take one of those standardized tests given by his school. Is there anything we can do about this?

A: Your son is in good company. Just the thought of taking a standardized test is stressful for many children in our current educational climate where the importance of good scores is heavily emphasized by teachers and parents. Nowadays, test scores are frequently used to determine all kinds of things from funding to real estate appeal. It wouldn't surprise me one bit if there was data suggesting that kids pick-up on these things. The pressure is real.

Feeling unprepared, low self-confidence, and fear of not finishing the test (when timed) are among the causes that make children feel anxious. Anxiety may include one or more physical symptoms such as an uneasy stomach, tense muscles, sweaty palms, or shortness of breath. Anxiety, or any intense emotion, can negatively impact a child's test performance because it interferes with the ability to retrieve learned information from memory.

The good news is that there are a number of things parents can do, both over the long haul and in the short run, to prevent or minimize test anxiety.

  • From the start, make sure your son attends school regularly and that you develop a consistent (but flexible) routine for homework. This will ensure that your son is learning what he should for the test, and that he is practicing what has been learned at school at home, thereby increasing his chances of feeling prepared.
  • It's also important to maintain frequent and open communication with your son's school and with his teacher. Although most schools will give several weeks notice as to when testing will take place, it doesn't hurt to have this information well in advance if you know your child tends to be anxious. You can use this time to practice and fine-tune "strategies" that reduce anxiety (keep reading). Another reason to stay connected with the teacher is that he/she can give you insight into your child's specific test-taking behaviors at school.
  • Pardon the statement of obvious, but maintaining good sleep and eating habits and getting adequate physical exercise are also positive long term habits that contribute to feelings of well-being. Make sure your child is well-rested the night before a test, and well fed the morning of a test (an ideal breakfast would include protein and carbs). These are important things that you have control over and that are known to be associated with positive test performance.
  • Some experts suggest that families do something fun the night before a big test, in order to relax and to provide a distraction from focusing on the test. 

Strategies that have been shown to be successful with many forms of anxiety, with both children and adults include relaxation techniques, visualization, and positive self-talk. 

  • Deep breathing exercises, or "belly" breathing is a technique that you and your child can practice at home together, and can be done anywhere including school. This involves teaching your son to inhale slowly from his belly, hold his breath for several seconds, and then exhale. Breathing is an easy, effective way to feel more relaxed, and can be used with visualization. 
  • Visualization can be done by having your son close his eyes and think of or "visualize" himself acing the test. Alternatively, visualizing an event or place that is associated with good feelings (a fun family vacation, scoring a soccer goal) and holding that feeling can improve one's mood and one's brain power.
  • Many anxious kids engage in negative self-talk: they make negative internal statements ("I can't remember the answers. I'm going to fail this test") during tests, which causes them to lose confidence, feel anxious, and give up. Changing these negative statements to positive ones ("I know that with hard work, I will pass") will help kids feel more confident and less anxious. 
  • Finally, modeling these techniques when you are feeling stressed or anxious will show your son that everyone can use these exercises to feel better, including mothers. After all, life is full of tests for all of us.

Got a question about school learning or behaviors for Dr. Mary? Leave it in the comments below or email us, and Dr. Mary may answer your question in a future post.

Read More