December 13, 2023

How To Help Your Child Overcome Test Anxiety

Focus on a positive mindset, strong study habits and healthy living

kid at bedroom desk stressing over a test while studying

Kids know all about testing. It starts in kindergarten and continues right up until graduation day. These constant assessments bring a certain pressure to succeed, too — and every child knows it.

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That may be why test anxiety seems to be at an all-time high among students.

So, what can you do if your child breaks out in a cold sweat at the mere thought of seeing a multiple-choice question? Let’s get some answers from pediatric psychologist Ethan Benore, PhD.

What is test anxiety?

Questions demand answers — and that’s a reality that can cause serious internal tension.

“Anxiety is your body’s reaction when it senses a potential threat,” explains Dr. Benore. “It’s an attempt to gear up energy so you can perform your best and meet the challenge. A lot happens physically and physiologically.”

Stress over an upcoming test can trigger adrenaline hormone surges, leading to:

  • Elevated heart rate.
  • Faster breathing.
  • Increased blood pressure.

It’s part of your body’s natural “fight-or-flight” survival response that dates to prehistoric times. Test anxiety is basically your body turning a history exam into the 21st-century equivalent of escaping a saber-toothed tiger.

There’s a definite downside to that sort of exaggerated reaction to an exam.

“When taking a test, most often, we just need to sit still and calmly think about what we’ve learned in order to succeed,” says Dr. Benore. “There’s a disconnect in terms of what your body is doing to prepare you and what you actually need to do to be successful.”

Signs of test anxiety

Fretting over an upcoming academic exam isn’t unusual. By some estimates, 40% of students experience test anxiety.

Now, will your child just come out and tell you they’re terrified of taking a test? Probably not. But Dr. Benore says there are signs that may point to testing uneasiness that interferes with academic performance.

Indicators include:

  • Avoidance. “If your child talks regularly about not wanting to go to school, that’s a big indicator,” says Dr. Benore. Ditto for putting off homework over and over and over again.
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Headaches.
  • Stomach aches.

Low grades may hint at trouble, but test anxiety doesn’t always bring a drop in scores. A child with a flawless 4.0 GPA also may be worrying themselves sick over their exams, cautions Dr. Benore.

“Even with good grades, some students may constantly be worried about their performance,” he says.

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Tips to deal with test anxiety

Unlike a math problem, there’s no single right answer when it comes to resolving test anxiety. But there are ways to approach the situation that can put your child in a position to perform their best.

Let’s break them down.

Lifestyle routines

Cramming the day before an exam isn’t the best route to success. It’s also not the best approach to tame test anxiety.

Things done at home on a day-to-day basis can supply a solid foundation for success, says Dr. Benore. Here are four ways to get your student in their best place mentally and physically for future tests.

  • Embrace a growth mindset. Focus more on the joy of learning as opposed to a letter grade. “The goal of education is growth,” he says. “In the end, that’s more important than any letter grade.”
  • Maintain a healthy diet. Taking care of your body can help you think more clearly. Keeping blood sugar levels stable is key. Ditto for hydration. “Healthy body, healthy brain,” adds Dr. Benore.
  • Rest up: Getting enough sleep is critical for learning and memory retention. It’s recommended that school-aged kids aged 6 to 12 get nine to 12 hours of sleep a night. Teens need eight to 10 hours of ZZZs. (Learn more about sleep and children.)
  • Talk about school. Make it a habit to ask your child what they learned in class that day. Showing interest can help them get more excited about what they’re learning.

Build strong study habits

Work with your child to identify the study habits that work best for them. Chatting with their teacher also can be beneficial. “It’s important to understand how your child learns,” advises Dr. Benore.

Try to set up distraction-free zones and times for your child to do homework. Creating a sense of calm — maybe with soft music playing — can help them better focus on the material.

“Your brain is going to do a much better job encoding or learning information in a distraction-free environment,” notes Dr. Benore. “Ideally that means no cell phones, no TVs and no excess chatter.”

Establishing a study mindset can help build skills and confidence to ease future test anxiety.

“There is a time for play and a time to get work done,” he emphasizes. “Helping your child understand that is part of teaching them good work habits so they can be at their best.”

Take study breaks

There’s a temptation to hit the books HARD before a test — but more studying doesn’t always translate into positive results.

“There’s only so much the brain can focus on for a set period of time,” says Dr. Benore. “It needs periods of rest and recovery.”

A 30-minute to 45-minute “mental break” can help reduce stress or tension that may build during a study period. The time can go toward grabbing a snack, scrolling through social media or some physical activity. A quick nap isn’t a bad idea either.

“It may seem counterproductive,” says Dr. Benore, “but stepping away can sometimes get you farther ahead.”

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Pre-test planning

Let’s start with some good news! If your child followed the above tips, odds are they’re in a good place heading into their test. (“The pre-work matters,” emphasizes Dr. Benore.)

But as the test draws closer, encourage your child to:

  • Review the material. Calmly going over material to reinforce what you’ve learned is more effective than cramming. Offer to quiz your child ­— or have some fun and let them quiz you.
  • Visualize success. Positive thoughts often translate into positive results.
  • Prepare their body. A good meal and a solid night of sleep can have your child ready to go on test day. Don’t overlook breakfast either!

Taking the test

Doing everything right heading into a test doesn’t mean your child won’t be nervous when they pick up that pencil. The solution? Talk to your child about using breathing techniques to destress.

High stress and anxiety often trigger shallow breathing and breath-holding. This robs the brain of oxygen, hampering memory recall, focus and concentration at test time, which can escalate those nervous feelings.

“Slow breaths in and out can reduce a lot of tension in the body to let you perform your best,” says Dr. Benore.

Final thoughts

Test anxiety (or performance anxiety) happens. It happens to many different people from all walks of life. It can happen in school or outside of class. It could happen once or it could happen regularly.

The takeaway from all of that? Test anxiety is a normal human reaction.

Trying the tips above may help your child work through test anxiety. If those nervous feelings grow and begin to interfere with their life, talk to your healthcare provider or a mental health professional and ask for an evaluation.

“View test anxiety as a learning opportunity,” says Dr. Benore. “We are all challenged with different things throughout life. Tests are just very structured ways to learn how to meet and overcome obstacles.

“If you approach it that way, you will learn skills that can help inside of the classroom and in other aspects of life, as well.”

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