Managing Performance Anxiety
There are so many things about life that can make us feel anxious. If your child seems to be experiencing anxiety, they are not alone – there could be numerous stressors in their life, including tests and much more, especially in the wake of COVID-19. Remind them that, in spite of the worry they might be feeling about an upcoming test, they are capable of coping with that anxiety and they have your support.
The more you realize what’s happening when test anxiety hits, the better able you’ll be able to help your anxious child get through it and the less ominous those scary standardized exams or homework challenges will be.
The Caretaker’s Guide to Helping Children Cope with Test Anxiety
Help your child prepare. Teaching your child effective study techniques and test-taking skills can take care of anxiety that comes from being ill-prepared. It can also help boost your child’s confidence, as it’s typically much easier to meet a challenge when you know you’ve done all you can do to be ready for it.
Study techniques that can be helpful include regular reviews of the material, flash cards and practice tests. Starting regular study sessions a week or two in advance can prevent the high-stress need to cram last minute.
Work on maintaining focus. Since one of the effects of test anxiety is the habit of looking around at other students and thinking everyone is smarter, reviewing focus techniques with your child may help nip that habit in the bud. Reinforce that the only thing that should grab your child’s focus is the test in front of him or her, not the boy in the next seat, the girl in the next aisle or the bird sitting on the window sill.
Purge anxieties on paper. All that anxiety packed in your anxious child’s brain has to go somewhere, and that somewhere is usually the part of the brain that controls a person’s working memory. Letting the anxiety stay in the brain and fester tends to crowd out other thoughts and decrease the working memory’s effectiveness.
Instead of keeping the anxieties harbored inside, students may do well to purge them by writing them out on paper shortly before the exam.
Go for relaxation exercises. Visualization exercises are great for little kids because they tend to have active imaginations. Practice these when your child is calm. Ask him to close his eyes and identify a place he feels happy, confident, and relaxed. Encourage him to share details about the sights, sounds and scents in his calming place. As he shares, cue him to take deep breaths. Then on test day, remind your child to close his eyes and visualize his calming place when he feels anxious.
- Watch how Arthur and his friends practice relaxation techniques in advance of a school-wide test.
Change your child’s mindset about stress. Cognitive reframing is a great way to help young children cope with their anxious thoughts. We can teach kids to “boss back” anxious thoughts by replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. So when their brain signals that something is too hard, they can say, “You don’t worry me! I know how to do this!” Remind your child that, no matter what happens with any test, he or she is a wonderful, beautiful, worthwhile individual who is deeply cherished and loved.
High-schoolers face some new types of tests, from midterms and finals to college entrance exams and state graduation tests. The stakes may feel higher to them, which can fuel their anxiety. These tips may help reduce your teen’s stress over tests.
Listen to his concerns about tests—and about the future.
Many high school tests help determine what your child will do after graduation. These may be especially stressful for teens with learning and thinking differences who may feel unsure about their future.
Talk honestly with your teen about what he’s feeling. Listen to his concerns. Try to be reassuring but realistic. “We can help be sure you’re prepared for this test. And however you do on it, don’t be worried. There are so many options for you after high school, and we’ll work with you to find the best ones.”
Help balance his schedule so he’s not squeezed for time.
It’s one thing to not take enough time to study for a test. It’s another to not have enough time. Feeling rushed can increase your child’s anxiety. Help him leave enough room in his schedule to comfortably prepare.
Look over his schedule of classes and activities. Then talk about the amount of time he needs to leave open for studying. You might consider scaling back on activities if that will give him breathing room to study without feeling like he’s compromising something else. Explain how keeping a balance can relieve stress.
Help him avoid stressful cramming.
Last-minute cramming for an exam is likely to increase your child’s anxiety. Part of the problem may be issues with organization and time management.
One way to avoid that is by helping him create a monthly calendar of tests. From there, help him set up a weekly schedule for review before each test or quiz. Review the test calendar at a set time each week and create the next week’s study plan. Having a schedule mapped out, and staying on top of it, can help him feel more in control.
Eliminate surprises with information about the test.
Some high-schoolers become anxious when they don’t know what to expect from the test. Is it multiple choice or short answer? Does it involve a skill they struggle with?
Suggest that your child find out what type or combination of questions will be on the test or exam. Knowing what to expect can help him prepare and feel more confident going into it. If he has trouble with handwriting, for instance, he may worry that his science test will involve labeling a diagram. If he could practice in advance, it might reduce his anxiety.
Be sure he understands the test supports he has.
Knowing that his specific needs are understood can help reduce your child’s test anxiety. If he has an IEP or a 401 Plan that includes testing accommodations, make sure he knows what they are and why they’ll help him. (He can apply for accommodations for college entrance exams, as well.)
You can also tell him that if his teacher or test proctor forgets about his accommodations, he should self-advocate and remind them.
Communicate to your teen that setbacks happen—and it’s OK.
Even with good study habits, some students with learning and thinking differences may not do well on tests. They may start dreading tests and become anxious over them because they’re afraid of failing.
Try countering that fear by coming up with an action plan after a bad test grade. Tell your teen: “I know you studied hard for that health test. Now you know what you tried and what didn’t work so well. Should we get your IEP team together? We can talk about what might work better for you next time.”