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Taming test anxiety

Published on: December 01, 2009

Your child is taking a test tomorrow and he’s a bundle of raw nerves. He can’t sleep. His stomach hurts and he knows — just knows — that he’ll blank on every fact he ever learned in history. Or math or English or even “life skills,” which is really code for sex ed.

Testing anxietyIn fact, it doesn’t matter which subject your child needs to master by 8:30 a.m.: When a child suffers from test anxiety, the idea of taking just about any exam is mega-scary.

“I’m sure you’ll do just fine,” you offer in a tranquil, reassuring tone. “Can I just stay home?” he pleads, buying neither the tranquility nor the reassurance.

Test stress is becoming more common as the number of state-mandated exams and high-stakes tests (think WASL and SAT) increase. According to educators and psychologists, test stress can affect a child’s academic performance and, ultimately, his or her success in school. “Anxiety can dramatically impact kids’ ability to perform well,” says Mike Haykin, director of learning support for Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Here’s why: Anxious kids can’t concentrate, says Joseph Mills, Ph.D., a Seattle psychologist who works with children and adolescents with anxiety disorders. When anticipating an exam, stressed-out students feel hopeless and overwhelmed. “They feel catastrophic things will happen if they don’t perform well,” says Mills.

We all get tense, worry and fret; that’s just the way we’re built. There’s nothing wrong with a smidgen of stress — it gets us moving and motivated. But this kind of worry is different. “It freezes kids,” Mills says. “It’s way out of proportion to the test itself — and it’s not helpful.”

And if your kid is the type to freeze over a quiz, don’t be surprised if the sweat level ramps way up when the test really matters: Midterms. Finals. PSATs, SATs or anything standardized. “When the stakes are high, the worry is realistic,” says Mills. “There’s something riding on this test.” But that doesn’t mean your child is headed for a life of flipping burgers if she doesn’t ace it. “Thinking that way takes normal anxiety and blows it up,” he says.

Why worry?
Why do some students float through exams with ease and others seem to suffer?

“While anxiety is a normal part of childhood, there are children who tend more toward it than others,” says Stacy Shaw Welch, Ph.D., a psychologist with the Anxiety and Stress Reduction Center of Seattle. Experts think some kids are just born worriers. “Learning and environment are also important, but some of us probably come into the world with wiring that makes us more likely to become anxious.”

Some kids also feel pressured by the expectations — real or imagined — of teachers or parents. Anxious kids can misread the most well-meaning offers of encouragement, says Haykin. A parent might say, “Just try your best.” The child — who’s actually been trying his best — may hear, “My best isn’t good enough. I’m not doing as well as my brother/sister; Mom and Dad must be disappointed.”

Then there are the kids who just don’t understand tests. They don’t know how to prepare, don’t grasp what’s being asked of them or haven’t learned the information in the first place.

“Kids will listen to something in class and think they’re good to go,” says Haykin. “But they don’t really embed the info into their psyche and their learning. They take the test — then realize they thought they knew something they really don’t. That’s when they decide, ‘I just can’t take tests.’”

How to help
Worries often fade once students master the art of taking tests. “Kids need to understand that taking tests can be learned,” says Haykin. Students make mistakes; they don’t always answer the actual question or elaborate enough on the answer.

Parents and teachers can help these kids by “walking them through” a few tests, he says. “I show students how to approach a question and I discuss what the question is asking. Then I’ll say, ‘Let’s try this together,’” says Haykin. “When kids do that, they often have ‘aha’ moments.”

It’s important that parents find ways to get these kids extra help, Haykin says. “They can identify resources for their child, such as a tutor or school learning specialist. Getting help is a positive.”

What else can parents do? Let your child know you don’t care as much about the grade as about the effort he puts into preparing for the test. “That’s a lot less threatening to kids,” says Mills. And make sure your child knows your love is not tied to his performance. “Say, ‘This test will not affect the way I feel about you one bit. You’ll come home, we’ll have dinner, I’ll tuck you in . . . nothing changes.’”

If you find your child’s anxiety level begins interfering with his academic progress or family life, it may be time to seek professional help.

And consider this, says Welch: Anxious children possess other positive qualities. “They are often thoughtful, observant, highly motivated kids.”

Linda Morgan is ParentMap’s education reporter and associate editor and author of Beyond Smart: Boosting Your Child’s Social, Emotional, and Academic Potential, to be released in February 2010, by ParentMap Books.

Does your child have test anxiety? Here are some Do’s and Don’ts.


  • Ask her what she is worried about. Is it that she will disappoint her teacher? Get a bad grade? If so, what does she fear the consequences would be?
  • Ask if she’d like your help calming down. Don’t force it.
  • Help her remember times when she had been scared before and things turned out OK. If she has been brave or coped well with anxiety in the past, remind her of what she did.
  • Help her overcome any fears that are realistic. If she doesn’t do well on tests, talk about ways that you can help her improve over time.
  • Help her see that one test doesn’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things.
  • Relate to your child. Talk about something similar that you’ve experienced and how you coped with the anxiety.
  • Tell her everyone gets anxious from time to time, it’s a normal feeling, and it won’t hurt her.
  • Help her distract herself. Do something low-key but engaging, like reading a favorite story, giving a back rub or a bath.
  • Reassure her that you will love her no matter what!


  • Dismiss the anxiety or fear by just saying, “There is nothing to worry about” or “Don’t worry, it’s fine.” Worry can’t be turned on and off like a faucet; this is usually unhelpful.

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