You’re sitting at a small desk with students sitting at other desks behind, beside, and in front of you. The teacher is starting to pass out test booklets. You look down and see three #2 pencils and an eraser on the desk in front of you. You notice you’re sweating and the room feels hot. Your heart is beating so hard you wonder if the student next to you can hear it. You’re also tired because you didn’t sleep well last night. Someone across the room is talking too much, and someone two desks in front of you won’t stop tapping his pencil. You remember that your teachers said these tests are important, and how your parents told you to try your best. You worry that if your score is too low you won’t get to take the math class you want next year. You also remember that everyone will see your scores and talk about them. Part of you wants to cry but you try to keep going. You wish you could go to the office or call your mom, but you can’t. You take a deep breath and wait for the teacher to tell you to start.
It’s that time of year again. The leaves are turning, the temperatures are cooler, and everyone’s in the back-to-school routine. And if you haven’t guessed it from the description above, it’s also the time when students take standardized tests. Whether you believe or don’t believe in the value of standardized tests, one thing is certain: They can be stressful for children. The above example may describe how your child or a child you know is feeling.
Many students feel some level of test anxiety, which can lead to poorer scores on standardized tests, ultimately influencing their access to things like gifted services, certain classes, or even special education services. Although standardized tests were largely put in place to gauge the quality and effectiveness of our schools, many schools use them as a measure of intellectual ability and academic readiness.
Recent research found that elementary students experience significantly more test anxiety during standardized tests than during regular classroom tests (Segool et al., 2013). As a result, these children reported more headaches and stomachaches in the weeks surrounding these tests. Other signs of test anxiety in children are irritability, fatigue, school avoidance, tearfulness, moodiness, fear, tantrums, and feelings of low self-worth or low self-esteem. Another study that found anxiety can cause students’s grades to fall as much as an entire letter grade lower than they might get otherwise, and approximately 10 percent lower test performance than they would do otherwise. Certainly, this gives children with anxiety a disadvantage on standardized tests.
What can you, as parents, do to help relieve your child’s fears or sense of pressure?
1. Take a look at how much pressure your child is facing around standardized testing.
The amount of attention teachers and parents pay to standardized tests (and the careful preparation for standardized tests) increase students’ self-doubt, leading to an increased fear of failure. Once students start to fear failure, their test performances often declines.
It’s okay to ask your child how she is feeling. If she reports feeling stressed or anxious, it’s important that you talk to her about it. Remind her of her strengths. Remind her that these tests were designed to measure school aptitude, not hers. No matter what, she is worth much more than what one number says about her or her achievement.
2. Encourage your child to do her best, BUT reassure her that it is OKAY not to know all the answers.
You can also remind her that these tests are not the best measure of her individual performance – they were created to measure how well schools are doing at meeting curriculum standards, not how well she’s doing. These tests are also designed so that no one knows all the answers. They want to test the limits on how much children know.
3. Encourage your child to write about her thoughts and feelings prior to testing.
Expressive writing tasks, when done repeatedly, have been found to help people decrease their feelings of anxiety, hyper-vigilance, and over-arousal if they include writing about thoughts and feelings. Writing can even help people successfully manage symptoms of trauma. Similarly, research (Beilock and Associates) found that writing ten minutes prior to taking stressful tests significantly improved test performance. When the student is able to free herself from the energy it takes to worry, her brain is better able to manage the demands of the test.
4. Encourage your children not to listen to other students talking about their experience with the tests.
All children handle test anxiety differently. Some students brag about their previous results and how much they studied. Some students verbally unload their anxiety about how “no one is prepared.” Some students talk about how important it is to do well so they can take an advanced class next year. Remind your child that everyone processes anxiety differently, and that many students say things that aren’t necessarily true because they’re anxious too. Remind her that she only has to do one problem at a time and focus on the present moment. It will all be okay.
5. Teach your child how to stay in the present moment instead of worrying about the past or the future.
When we’re under stress, we often remember other stressful things that have happened to us in the past, or we worry about bad things that could happen to us in the future. So, for example, your child may remember how much they struggled with timed tests in math last year. They may also worry that they will never get into advanced placement classes or college (future events). Try to help your child stay present. Teach her to notice her breathing. Sometimes, I use a technique called “5-4-3-2-1” with children, which wouldn’t probably be practical during the test (unless she starts to panic and can’t keep going), but would be helpful if she’s feeling anxious before it starts. Have her notice 5 things she sees, 4 things she hears, 3 things she feels, 2 things she smells, and take 1 deep breath at the end. Remembering her sensory experiences will help her do a better job of staying present in the moment.
6. Teach your child to take slow, deep breaths when she’s nervous.
This practice can be as simple as counting to four as she takes a deep breath in, and counting to four when she takes a deep breath out. Encourage your child to do this AT LEAST four times, and keep it up until she feels their heartbeat slow down. It will help her preserve oxygen, which helps thinking during the test.
7. Role play these skills a few times with your child.
In this context, role-playing does NOT mean practicing the test. Role-playing means practicing what your child can do prior to the test to help her anxiety. You may practice “5-4-3-2-1” and deep breathing. You can practice what to say or do if a teacher or peer says something that triggers anxiety. You can also practice some coping thoughts like, “It’s all ok.” Or “I’m ok.” Or “I will have a good life no matter how these tests go.” You could have your child write (or type) a little about her thoughts or feelings about taking the standardized tests. By practicing the skills when there is no test, it will be easier for your child to remember what to do when there IS a test.
Bottom-line: It seems like standardized tests are here to stay. But the key to our children doing their best on them is NOT adding pressure or fear to the situation. Instead, it is teaching our children tools to manage their fears and thoughts. It is supporting them in their individuality, and helping them find the good things in their present world. And it’s helping them remember that some of the best things in life are not measured, but rather are experienced with kindness, love, and support.
Author: Cindy Anderson
Dr. Anderson is a Board Certified Clinical Child Psychologist. She also owns Hope Springs Behavioral Consultants. Dr. Anderson has achieved a high degree of specialization in working with children and families. She holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and completed APA Accredited internship and postdoctoral training in Clinical Child and Pediatric Psychology. She prides herself as a life-long student and tries to learn something new every day.
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