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Something that took me many, many years to figure out: I
struggled with test anxiety. As an elementary school child, I never paid much
attention to the standardized testing. It wasn't such a big deal in those days,
so if I guessed on a few (or most of the questions), it didn't matter. It was
when I got to high school and began preparing for the SAT that my test anxiety
became a problem.
I could write beautiful essays no problem, but send a
multiple choice test my way and I froze. Every. Single. Time. There was no
amount of test preparation that would help calm those nerves. The minute I saw
the test paper in front of me, all knowledge went flying out of my brain and I
stared into space in a silent state of panic.
I took the SAT so many times that I finally performed well on it the last time—not because I was more
prepared but because I no longer cared. I lost the will to try. As it turned
out, not caring was the best thing that could have happened to me.
These days I get phone calls about kids struggling with test
anxiety in elementary school. Very young kids are taking lots of tests and
being assessed so often that many of them are struggling.
Stomachaches, headaches and sleepless nights are common in
kids with test anxiety. Often, the anticipation of the test triggers so much
emotional turmoil that the child is exhausted and overwhelmed before she even
sees the test in front of her.
The good news is that parents can help kids decrease their
test anxiety. With a little practice, kids can learn to cope with the emotions
that sometimes cause them to freeze up when tests land on their desks.
Young children don't always connect the dots between tests and tummy troubles.
1. Know the signs
The first step toward conquering test anxiety is recognizing
the symptoms. Young children don't always connect the dots between tests and
tummy troubles. If they complain of feeling "sick" a lot during times of
testing, it's because they really do feel sick. They are, quite literally,
Here's what you should look for:
Sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying
Changes in eating patterns (suddenly eating
significantly less or more that can't be accounted for by growth)
Nervous behavior (hair twirling, hair pulling,
nail biting) that is new and different
If you notice a few of those changes, talk to your child
about what she feels like when she encounters a test at school. Many kids who
struggle with test anxiety describe the following:
When kids come to me to work through test anxiety, they
often tell me that they tried deep breathing once and it didn't work. Here's
the thing about deep breathing: It's the single best thing you can do to calm
an anxious mind, but it requires practice and patience.
For young kids (and even older kids), blowing bubbles is a
great way to practice. Big kids love to blow bubbles with gum, while little kids
love soapy bubbles in the back yard. Either way, bubbles teach kids to take a
slow deep breath in, hold for a few seconds and release the air slowly.
The best time to practice deep breathing is when kids are
calm, so make it part of your daily routine. Talk about what your body feels
like after a few deep breaths. Make it a family calming ritual to get everyone
If I'm being honest, I'm not surprised that test anxiety is on the rise among younger children.
3. Teach positive
Self-talk might feel a little strange at first, but once
kids get into the habit of replacing their negative thoughts with positive
ones, they are better able to cope with stress and anxiety. Kids have a
tendency to get stuck in a negative loop. One low test score can cause even the
calmest kid in the class to worry excessively about the next test. Learning to
talk back to those negative thoughts is powerful.
It's important to teach realistic self-talk when working on
decreasing those negative thoughts. Don't, for example, tell your kid to
repeat, "I'm the best at spelling" over and over again. That's a setup. A
better replacement thought is, "I studied my words and I can do this." That's
both positive and grounded in reality.
Ask your child to name the negative thoughts that typically
run through her mind during a test and come up with a list of replacement
thoughts together. Write them on a small paper to tape inside the pencil box.
4. Get back to basics
Eat. Play. Sleep. Exercise. You can try all of the anxiety
reduction strategies you want, but if your child is missing any of those
essential "basics," anxiety will prevail.
Kids need nutritious meals, 11 to 12 hours of sleep each night
(for school age), plenty of free playtime and outdoor exercise. Sometimes play
and exercise go together. Climbing trees, for example, is both fun and
If I'm being honest, I'm not surprised that test anxiety is
on the rise among younger children. Sure, the pushing down of academics
combined with frequent tests and assessments takes a toll. But it's not just
that. Kids today are under-slept and over-scheduled. They need time to simply
Anxiety has a way of snowballing when left unchecked,
especially among young children. If you suspect that your child struggles with
anxiety, the best first step is an evaluation by a licensed mental health
professional. In the meantime, get out those bubbles and get to work on deep