Test-Taking Anxiety Among Our Kids

Smart, sensible ways for parents to get involved, calm things down — and help children succeed

Since the advent of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, high-stakes testing has been a prominent focus of schools throughout the United States. Whether it’s an end-of-unit exam or a standardized test designed to provide educational benchmarks to the state, testing creates significant stress for students — and kids continue to suffer.

But it goes beyond simple stress. It’s anxiety, marked by excessive worry, withdrawal, irritability — even nausea. Test-related anxiety is higher now than it ever has been before, say social-emotional learning experts Nadine Briggs and Donna Shea. They’re the authors of the book, “I Feel Worried: Tips for Kids on Overcoming Anxiety.”

Related: Standardized Test Panic … for Parents

“There is also a lot more pressure on kids than there was in the past,” Shea told LifeZette. “Academic curriculum is much harder at an earlier age, the homework load can be intense, and kids are engaging in highly competitive organized sports at very young ages. These things all increase stress and anxiety in kids.”

Without the tools to address anxious feelings, they can easily become overwhelming — and for some people, even debilitating,

“Children who are anxious may present with what looks on the surface like behavior problems — defiance, wanting power and control, and being irritable or rude,” Briggs said. “Anxiety in children can appear in the form of somatic issues — headaches, stomach aches, nausea — and frequent trips to the nurse’s office at school.”

“The anxiety may come from a history of not doing well on tests.”

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But anxiety doesn’t mean a child is destined to fail. Equipping a child with the right coping tools can help. “Sometimes your brain can become stuck on a thought that plays over and over in a loop,” said Briggs. “A stuck thought might actually be a worry and you may not even be aware of it … We want to empower kids with problem-solving and coping tools so that anxiety doesn’t take over how they live their lives.”

Briggs and Shea shared more of their thoughts in an interview.

Question: Are kids today more anxious than they were in previous generations? If so, why is there a difference?
Answer (Briggs): We think there is a higher level of anxiety in all of us, including our children. In our opinion, the level of media and information that children are exposed to now as compared to when we were kids is so much higher. There is now a never-ending news cycle, most of which is negative and scary. Kids are exposed to so many things they are not developmentally ready to see or hear.

Kids’ electronics are also a pull for their attention with seemingly constant notifications. Test-related anxiety may go to the overall general increased pressure on children to perform academically and athletically from a very young age.

Q: Why do tests provoke anxiety in kids?
A (Shea): Most of us feel anxious when we must take a test. The anxiety may come from a history of not doing well on tests. There are many children that can take a test verbally, but shut down when it is a written form. Feeling unprepared for an exam can also cause stress, and you may find a child engaging in avoidance behaviors to get out of taking the test. Some teens have dropped out of school rather than face test anxiety. There is also a fear of failure that many children may experience, especially those that have perfectionistic tendencies.

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Timed tests can also cause an increase in anxiety and an adrenaline-panicked rush that shuts down a child’s ability to answer the questions — even if he or she knows the answers.

Q: What’s the difference between just being nervous or worried about a test and having anxiety?
A (Briggs): A little anxiety about taking a test can be helpful and even natural. It may even increase focus, alertness, and performance. Full-blown test anxiety will decrease performance and close the brain off from accessing answers, even if a child is well-prepared.

Q: Can test-related anxiety affect other parts of a child’s life, too?
A (Shea): We would say that if a child suffers from a high level of test anxiety, he or she is probably coming to the world with anxious-prone wiring and that it impacts other areas of a child’s life as well.

Q: Why don’t kids have the tools to address anxious feelings?
A (Briggs): As adults and parents, we tend to tell kids there is nothing to worry about, that they are fine, and that they are smart. We inadvertently minimize or diminish what a child is thinking or feeling. Whether we think the child is making a big deal out of a small deal, we need to remember it’s still a big deal to that child. It’s important to empathize with what the child may be struggling with and provide strategies to problem-solve and overcome anxious feelings.

Important Tips to Parents
Unlike other social-emotional curricula, Nadine Briggs and Donna Shea advise using common, everyday language and simple social phrases to help kids overcome anxiety. Here are some strategies they share that parents can use to help children who have test-related anxiety.

  • Make sure your child stays hydrated, eats well, and gets enough sleep.
  • Help your child recognize when he or she is having anxious thoughts or is engaged in “what if” thinking. The words “what if,” “never,” “always,” and the like are key words that indicate a child is stuck in an anxious place.
  • A child may not understand anxiety. Other words to help a child understand what he’s feeling could be “stress,” “worry,” “fear,” or “having a concern about” something. Talk to kids about “stuck thoughts,” since those are the thoughts that are likely running in a loop in their minds.
  • Encourage your child to talk to you instead of acting out. Coach your child to let you know when he or she is having a hard time (without judgment). Perhaps give children a phrase to use so adults know they need support.
  • Teach your child to replace his or her worried thought with a coping thought. Something like: “I can only try my best — no one is perfect,” or, “If I’m not happy with my grade, I can always ask for help the next time. It’s OK to ask for help.”

Teachers should also reinforce the use of positive self-talk and coping thoughts for students who exhibit test anxiety. They should talk directly with children about the topic of test anxiety and normalize the experience — and test on material that was taught. A common complaint from kids is that testing materials seem unfair. This could certainly be a misunderstanding on the part of the student, but teachers can take care to be fair. 

Teachers can help kids set a good pace on answering questions, how to go through and answer the ones they know for sure first — and then go back to the other questions. And they should understand the developmental needs of students and make sure there is not more pressure involved than a child is ready to handle.

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