How to help your child with test anxiety
Last week my 8 year old came home from school and told me she was feeling nervous about completing NAPLAN next week. For those of you not in the know, this is standardised testing that occurs across Australia each year. And my daughter’s comment made me realise that test anxiety in kids is probably something that a lot of families are dealing with right now.
In fact, even if you’re not in Australia, you probably have your own standardised testing that occurs in your schools. At the very least, you have class tests or end of year assessments and testing that occurs. So you know that this type of testing can be super stressful for some kids.
Now, this is our first experience with NAPLAN, and I didn’t expect my daughter to to be even remotely worried about it. Because her father and I (a psychologist and a teacher) are certainly not. Whether we agree with it or not (and that’s a whole different post!), we understand that the purpose of standardised testing like this is to simply capture a snapshot of our child’s learning. A little moment in time that helps her teacher understand what she’s doing well with and what she needs more assistance with.
But NAPLAN (and indeed, any standardised testing) can cause children, parents, and even teachers, to experience enormous levels of anxiety. Why? because of the way we perceive this testing, and the importance we place upon it. But we’ll get to that later.
What is test anxiety?
First, lets talk about what test anxiety in kids actually is and how you can spot it. The first part is easy – it’s exactly what it sounds like! Anxiety that occurs when your child needs to take a test. It is (unfortunately) super common amongst kids and some of the symptoms may include:
- Nausea or butterflies in their tummy
- Complaining of a headache
- Feeling shaky and “on edge”
- Refusal to take the test or even to go to school on test day
- Tears and emotional “meltdowns”
- Irritability or angry outbursts
The effects of test anxiety on your child
Now, test anxiety in kids is not always a bad thing. In fact, we need a small amount of anxiety or stress, in order to perform at our best. This anxiety is what encourages us to study or prepare and to try our hardest. Small amounts of anxiety are great, if they encourage us to take action. That is, after all, the whole point of anxiety as an emotion.
But extreme test anxiety in kids has a negative impact on their performance. It can cause children to make mistakes, become confused and overwhelmed, and forget information. It also impairs decision making and reasoning skills. We cannot think clearly when we are highly anxious. Our body and our brain is on high alert for a threat and we are simply in survival mode.
Which means, the more anxious your child becomes about their performance on a test, the worse their performance is likely to be.
So what can you do to help your child?
1. Reframe unhelpful thinking
This is about shifting a child’s perspective around the value and importance of a test, as well as the importance of their performance on that test and what it means about them as a person. It is easy for all of us, not just kids, to overemphasise the importance of a test. We want them to perform well and they want to make us proud. Our children love us and want to please us, and sometimes this is exactly what causes their anxiety.
I see this in classrooms, as teachers put a huge emphasis on NAPLAN and on practicing questions in the lead up to the test, sometimes to the detriment of any other actual learning. I see this in families were parents are buying all of the NAPLAN practice booklets, and paying for private NAPLAN tutoring, and rewarding their kids for achieving particular test scores. And I see it in children. Children who are increasingly stressed and anxious and feeling pressured to perform and keep up with expectations. Both their own, and others.
Yes, school is important. But so is their mental health. Yes, we want our children to try their best. But not to the detriment of everything else.
So let’s keep things in perspective. This one test will not make or break their future. This one test is not a measure of their intelligence. This one test is not a measure of their worth as a person.
You will love and be proud of your child regardless of how they perform on a test. Their value is not determined by a test score. Please make sure they understand this. Tell them. Show them. Even if you think they already know.
2. Help them feel prepared
When children are feeling anxious, sometimes knowing what to expect can be helpful. Especially if the situation is new to them – it is often the element of the unknown that triggers their fear and uncertainty.
So to start with, talk to your child and try to find out exactly what it is they find anxiety provoking about test taking. Is it something you can help with? For example: perhaps they run out of time and are unable to finish. Perhaps they feel like they do not know enough about a particular subject and need to revise. Perhaps they are anxious because they do not know what the test is going to look like or what the questions might be about.
Now sit down and try to problem solve together. Can they complete a practice test to help them feel familiar with the structure and timing of the test and the nature of the questions? Do they need some time management skills? Can you help them revise a particular topic?
Remember, the aim here is to help them feel more familiar with the structure and process of testing, not to get them to study more. And also remember, your child’s teacher will be helping them prepare in class time too, so try to keep it light and easy at home.
3. Teach them calming strategies
High levels of test anxiety in kids will affect their performance on the test and cause them to have a negative experience. We need to be cautious in our approach here – while we certainly don’t want to focus too much on the outcome of the test, we do want to ensure a child has a positive experience. And repeatedly experiencing anxiety in a test taking situation that then causes them to perform poorly, will reinforce their negative beliefs around tests. And the idea that tests are scary.
So we want to make the test as positive an experience for our child as we can. We do that by giving them strategies to remain calm when they’re in a testing situation, so they can feel confident and in control. Here are 3 strategies to try wth your child:
- Deep breathing – Inhale through the nose and fill the belly with air, counting to three. Then exhale slowly and steadily through the mouth, emptying the belly again, while counting to four.
- Grounding – Have them look around the room and name 5 things they can see, 4 things they can hear, 3 things they can touch, 2 things they can smell, and 1 thing they can taste.
- Visualisation – Ask them to imagine they are somewhere calm and relaxing. A place where they feel happy and at ease.
4. Let them know you believe in them!
It’s vital when our child is experiencing anxiety, that we do not dismiss or invalidate how they feel. I’ve written about this before, here. But what does it mean? And what does an invalidating response look and sound like?
It sounds like, “You have nothing to be afraid of. Don’t be scared. You’ll be fine. There’s nothing to worry about. Tests are easy. Just get on with it.”
Now many, if not all, of these responses come from a good place. We want to help our child feel better and not dwell on their feelings of anxiety. But unfortunately, these responses tend to have the opposite effect, and make our children feel worse. Children start to doubt how they are feeling, or feel shame and guilt over their anxiety. And they become less likely to talk to us about how they feel in the future.
Instead, we want to validate how they feel, while letting them know we believe they can get through it. What does that look like? “I know you’re scared, but I believe in you. I know this is hard for you, but I’m here to help. Lots of people feel nervous about tests, you’re not alone. If you feel scared, you can use the strategies we talked about. When you’ve been nervous before, what has been helpful? Has there been a time in the past when you’ve been anxious? Did your worry come true?”
5. Set them up for success
We want our kids to feel their best on test day – full of energy, well rested and able to concentrate. These conditions improve the likelihood that they will have a positive experience and will feel more confident. There are a few simple things we can do to help:
- Ensure they get enough sleep the night before
- Get lots of healthy, nourishing food into them before their test
- Ensure they are getting plenty of exercise – this is good for the body and the mind
- Keep screen time to a minimum as this can be overstimulating for kids and affect their concentration and attention
- Keep schedules and routines as close to regular as possible to provide a sense of security and familiarity in the lead up to the test
- Avoid putting too much pressure on your child to study
- Encourage plenty of rest, play and connection with others
- Be present and available for your child to bring any questions or concerns to should they need to.
I hope these strategies have given you a little insight into test anxiety in kids and have been helpful for your child or student. If you’d like more resources, be sure to check out the anxiety section of the shop, here.
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.