Tackling Test Anxiety
Your child sits in her desk and a wave of nausea overcomes her. She starts to sweat. She glances around nervously. The teacher stands in front of the classroom holding the tests and giving instructions. Your daughter is watching but can’t hear what her teacher is saying. Her classmate places the test on her desk. The words swim around on the paper, and try as she might, your sweet girl can’t recall anything that she studied the night before.
These symptoms exemplify test anxiety. Anxiety manifests itself physically in our bodies. It is not a made up excuse, but a physiological response. When children feel the onset of anxiety due to either a weekly assessment or a high-stakes standardized test, they often do not perform at the level they are able. Tirza Fernandez-Brazier, Director of Counseling and Guidance for East Baton Rouge Parish School System, describes test anxiety as “basically coming in many forms: a mention of test could make your child feel ill, have a meltdown, and be distracted. Your student may know the information but cannot perform.”
As a parent, you may have no idea how to help your child manage the stress. Whether it is your fourth-grader nervous about a math test or your junior anxious about the ACT, you want to provide comfort and assurance so they succeed. With greater understanding and some helpful tips, you can support your child.
Test anxiety can appear in many ways and depends on the individual. Christina Anderson, the Elementary Director of Curriculum and Instruction at Parkview Baptist, has seen many different versions of test anxiety. She shares, “Students may complain about stomachaches or headaches, but have had no other symptoms of being ill. I’ve also had children that literally shake and tremble from being nervous. I’ve seen ticks like excessive blinking or wringing of hands.”
When these symptoms arise, students of all ages become so distracted by their body’s response to the anxiety that they have difficulty focusing on the task before them.
What are the reasons for these intense reactions? Similar to the symptoms, the causes vary from student to student. Just like many different things cause anxiety for adults, a variety of fears overwhelm children and teens.
The anxiety “can stem from a negative testing experience, but sometimes it is them internalizing their parents’ or caregivers’ feelings about a situation,” Christina explains. “I’ve done it myself. My husband and I have had a conversation with the kids in the car, and you think they’re not paying attention, but they are. Then they absorb everything we say, and they start doubting themselves. They make themselves overly anxious about taking it.” Children are perceptive and can pick up on your concerns easily. Then they make those concerns into big expectations that they carry with them into their classrooms.
There can be other causes, too. Tirza observes, “For many kids, the length of a test or the unknown outcome can cause the panic. For others, they want to do well for their parents and teachers. Some students are more distracted by the outside pressure of comparing themselves to other students.” Whether the pressure is internal or external, it can produce the same result of crippling anxiety.
Type of Testing
Right now, you may start to experience some anxious feelings because you are concerned your child will be plagued with this issue indefinitely. Christina asserts that this is not the case: “Test anxiety can come and go. Because it is related to confidence, they will not exhibit it in a subject that they like and perform well in. It is often associated in what they think are their strengths and weaknesses.” When it comes to classroom assessments, you can take the lead in reassuring your child and working with his teacher to strengthen that confidence. Standardized testing is another animal entirely, though.
For Louisiana public schools, the LEAP, the EOC, and the GEE tests are high-stakes tests. These tests measure the knowledge and skills students have learned as well as determine their placement the next year. Tirza shares, “The LEAP is given to grades three through eight. All students take this summative assessment.” Yes, third graders enter into the world of high-stakes testing. And they know how significant those few hours can be. Christina acknowledges, “Kids understand the importance. They can get so anxious knowing that it’s a possibility that if on this day, at this snapshot in time, they’re not at their best, then they could get left behind.”
What if your child is in private school? Does that mean they may escape the standardized testing jitters? Pertaining to state qualifications, yes, but they still will take the ACT or SAT, which determines their college placement.
Tips to Manage
Now that you have gained an understanding of test anxiety, you can equip yourself with a toolbelt of tips to share with your child.
Acknowledge the real symptoms your child is having. Christina adds, “You never want a child to feel like they can’t voice their feelings or they can’t talk about what’s troubling them. Whether or not you believe the feeling is truly there, that’s not for you to judge.”
Reassure your child. “The confidence they come to school with has a huge part to play in how they feel when it comes to testing. If you know your child has a fear or anxiety with a particular subject, reassure them in those areas and help them as best you can to get through that material,” Christina advises.
Take time to have fun. “Do the things you would normally do in the week. When you change your entire routine, it throws them off,” Christina offers.
Make sure they have good study habits and manage their time well. Keep your child informed when their tests are.
Eliminate any barriers that would cause them stress. Keep a calendar and plan ahead.
Encourage them to use acronyms to help them remember. “When they get to the test, they can write on top of the paper so that they have something to fall back on. They can check off as they go,” shares Jean Edwards, third grade English Language Arts and Social Studies teacher at Mayfair Lab School.
There is a simple cure for test anxiety: confidence. Though it may be one simple word, it can be difficult to attain. You have a great role in this cure. Confidence cannot be “a false sense of security but an encouragement in what they have done, whatever baby steps they have taken.
Each encouraging step will help their self-esteem, self-confidence, and then their performance. An old adage that I was taught in a training is so true: ‘High anxiety equals poor performance,” Christina says.
The good news is, that through preparation, reassurance, and positive outcomes, your child can improve and overcome test anxiety. It can be managed, and students can rise above the tension. Jean agrees, “Test anxiety is 100 percent about confidence, and confidence is the only way to get over anxiety.” ■