Michele Borba Blog: Helping kids learn to take tests, reduce jitters and boost scores

by | Feb 5, 2010 | School Success and Learning, Stress, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions

It’s that time again for one of kids more dreaded four-letter    words: T.E.S.T. These days it seems even for many kids even  if they’ve studied hard and done their homework when test  day comes they’re hit with a wave of panic. Butterflies hit  their stomach and their heads are filled with a wave of  negative thoughts: “I’m going to flunk.” “I’m so dumb.” And  then their mind goes blank.

Make no mistake, test-taking anxiety can be costly to our children academic success as well as their emotional and physical well-being. While there are no quick fixes, there are solutions that will help reduce anxiety and even improve those test scores. The best news is that parents are a big part of the success equation. Here are proven solutions:

Before the Test

  • Make a plan for success. Start by identifying your child’s current study habits. Then think of one or two simple solutions to begin helping your child improve his test taking skills. For instance: Write each vocabulary word on a flash card so he can review them at his brother’s soccer practice. Hire a tutor if necessary. Or teach one or two of the following strategies to your child.
  • Reframe negative thoughts. Negative thoughts about performance can affect test taking. So teach your child to challenge each negative idea by finding evidence that it’s not always true. Child: “I always do badly on tests.” You: “Practicing your flash cards boosted your spelling grade on Friday.” Child: “I won’t remember anything.” You: “Eating a good breakfast seemed to sure helped improve your memory for your last math test.”
  • Teach test-taking strategies. There are simple skills that help improve test performance as well as reduce kids’ test anxiety. Here are few tips you can teach your child:
    • Ask questions. If you are unsure of the question, raise your hand to get clarification.
    • Quickly flip though. Get an instant gauge as to the type of questions and test length.
    • Answer what you know. Fill in the questions you know right away so you don’t forget.
    • Check answers. Never turn in a test without first checking to make sure no questions have been skipped. Always proofread your answers if you have time.
  • Don’t cram. Test-anxious kids figure they will worry less if by putting their studying off and then cramming at the last minute. But it backfires and instead increases anxiety. Not only will he be less likely to know the subject content but he will also recognize he’s not prepared. Check in with the teacher so you know that test schedule and can prepare further in advance. Then map out a study schedule on a calendar several evenings before the test.
  • Set realistic study times. Study lengths and breaks should be relaxed and geared to your child’s attention. Typical study spans per ages are: 6 to 8 years: 15 minutes; 9 to 10 years: 20 minutes; 11 and 12 years: 30 minutes; 13 years: 30 to 40 minutes.
  • Do practice tests. The more comfortable your child is about test taking, the less anxious he will be. So ask the teacher for a few practice tests or purchase a test-taking manual geared to your child’s level. Then help your child apply the test-taking strategies he’s learned as well as those anxiety-reducers on a few practice tests to boost his confidence.

On the Test Day

  • Get enough sleep. Countless studies find a significant correlation between kids’ sleep and test performance.  The biggest sleep disturbers: computers, cell phones, texting and TV. Unplug your kid at least 30 minutes before bedtime.
  • Serve brain food for breakfast. Don’t let your child skip breakfast. Studies show that a breakfast rich in whole-grain cereals along with a lean protein such as eggs is proven to help maintain your child’s energy and keep him more alert during that test.
  • Use anxiety-reducers. Research shows that using a relaxation strategy can reduce test anxiety. Here are three possibilities to teach your child a few weeks before the big test:
    • Self-talk: Repeat a relaxing phrase silently such as: “It’s only a test.” “I don’t have to be perfect.” Or “I’ll worry later, but I’m going to focus on the test now.”
    • Deep breathing: Take a three by three: Breathe in slowly to a count of three then exhale slowly to a count of three. Repeat the deep breathing strategy at least three times.
    • Visualize a calm scene: Close your eyes and imagine a calm peaceful place (a park, beach, tree house) that the child has experienced and brings a smile to his face.

After the Test

  • Review test performance. During a relaxed time, help your child evaluate his test performance and results. Questions might include: “Did you feel any differently this time?” “Did the three by three breathing help?” “What part of the test was the easiest? The most difficult?” What things helped that you want to remember to try again?”  The trick is to help your child recognize what works so he can apply those same strategies again to the next test.  You can also determine what still needs correcting or how to form a better test-taking plan.
  • Monitor the situation. While it is normal for kids to be anxious before a test, if anxiety signs persist, increase, or interfere with your child’s school performance or life, then it is time to seek help. If anxiety mounts or your child continues to struggle then please seek the counsel of a mental health professional.  Test Anxiety is a growing new condition for students these days. Almost 20 percent of tweens and teens experience test anxiety, but with today’s high-stakes testing, the condition is being diagnosed in even our youngest students.
  • Stay cool and be accepting. A big kid worry is, “I hope I didn’t let my parents down” so reaffirm your unconditional love—regardless of that score. Research shows that a warm, accepting parenting style with realistic expectations helps decrease kids’ test anxiety.

Regardless of how prepared or capable your child, his over-riding concern about his performance reduces his ability to focus and test his best. With all the emphasis on high-stakes testing, kids pushed to meet higher standards, and even more rigorous high school tests coming up, it’s crucial to help our kids learn successful test-taking and coping strategies, and nip test anxiety in the bud.

More Resources on Helping Reduce Those Test Jitters

This blog is adapted from The Big Book of Parenting  Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and  Wildest Worries. For more specifics on helping your child in  school refer to the chapters on Test Anxiety, Gives Up,  Teacher Conference, Attention Deficit, Homework, Learning  Disabilities, Disorganized, Stressed.  Follow me on twitter @micheleborba or my website, micheleborba