How to curb kid test jitters, get ready for those tests, improve scores, and know if it’s time to seek medical advice

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.

The diagnosis is: “Test Anxiety.” It’s 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.

Make no mistake, test-taking anxiety can be costly to our children academic success as well as their emotional and physical well-being. What’s more, stress from test anxiety can reduce kids’ ability to focus and cause them to even “choke” on those answers that they studied for. While no quick fixes, there are proven 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 things parents can do before, during, and after those big tests to reduce kid anxiety and even increase those scores.

Before the Test

Watch how your child responds

Here are signs of test anxiety to watch for in your child or teen. Key is to helping your child recognize those signs so he can tune into them himself and learn ways to reduce them before they become overwhelming.

  • Physical signs:Butterflies, cold or clammy hands, headache, nausea, feels faint, hot or cold or light-headed, raised heart rate, perspiration, dry mouth
  • Emotional signs:Feels helpless and pessimistic, wants to cry, fears failure
  • Cognitive signs:Forgets what he learned, more trouble than usual concentrating and thinking about test items, preoccupied with negative thoughts about test performance

Do seek help if test anxiety overwhelms performance

Test jitters are normal, but when performance worries are more severe the problem is called “Test Anxiety.” If your child has a pattern of test anxiety, set a conference with the teacher and then decide if you should seek the help of a trained mental health professional.

Test Anxiety Reducers

Adopt positive thoughts. Negative thoughts about performance can affect test taking. Sian Beilock’s research at the University of Chicago found teaching kids to reframe negative feelings about test taking can impact test scores. So teach your child one of these techniques (and do teach in advance…not the morning of the test!)

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.”

Reframe negative thoughts. Teach your child to erase “bad thoughts” with positive ones about test-taking. Instead of: “I hate taking tests.” Say: “I’m really psyched up for this test.

Shift stress views. Your child may get sweaty palms or a pounding heart before taking a test but remind him that he can get those same signs from enjoyable experiences like riding a tilt-a-whirl or watching a close baseball game.

Teach test-taking strategies

There are simple skills that help improve test performance as well as reduce kids’ test anxiety. Online programs and books are now available to help kids learn ways to be effective (and calmer) test takers. 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. 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! Period.

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. Do 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

Hold your tongue!

This is not the time to review nor tell your child “you should have studied.” Better to keep things calm – including yourself! You want your child to feel be relaxed and not pick up any clues from you. (FYI: Teens say a big cause of their stress is not school-related but “us-related”) Our “too high” and unrealistic expectations for their success is stressing them out and causing them to choke on those tests. Keep cool!

Ensure sleep

Countless studies find a significant correlation between kids’ sleep and test performance.For instance, fourth and sixth graders who got on average 31 minutes less sleep each night performed significantly less on achievement-tests.

A study of over 7000 high school students found that teens who received A’s average about 15 more minutes sleep than the B students, who in turn averaged 11 more minutes than the C’s and the C’s had ten more minutes than the D’s.

The biggest sleep disturbers: computers, cell phones, texting and TV. Unplug your kid at least 30 minutes before sleep. Also, watch out for caffeinated or energy drinks. Teens are taking them to stay up later to study – but then have a harder time sleeping.

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 possibilities to teach your child a few weeks before the big test then do on the morning of the 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.

Write your anxiety away. The morning of the test, encourage your child to take 5-10 minutes to write all his concerns about the test (“I’ll forget the answers…I’ll flunk….I won’t have enough time”) on paper.

A study published by Dr. Beilock and  co-author, Gerardo Ramirez, found the writing technique  used by a group of ninth graders prior to a biology final, worked both in the lab and in classrooms to reduce test anxiety. Encourage your child to use that strategy during another stressful situation such as at a sleepover or a family reunion. Model it yourself around your kids such as when your soufflé isn’t rising or the computer won’t boot.

Or make it a family affair: “Let’s practice those deep breaths at bedtime.” Practicing in real life will improve the chance the test-taking strategy will succeed. Besides, the more your child “sees” that strategy, the more likely he will use it.

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?”

“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.

Talk with your child’s teacher to discuss his progress, and ensure that he is in the right academic placement and whether she advises a tutor.

If anxiety mounts or your child continues to struggle then please seek the counsel of a mental health professional.

Use the Rule of “Too”: Whenever the problem lasts TOO long (at least every day for two weeks), seeps into TOO many areas of your child’s life (affects not only school, but also your relationship with your child, his social life or health), and your child’s behavior change is TOO different from “his typical” it’s time to talk to your doctor.

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. Most kids are tested for reading and math every year in grades three through eight and at least once in high school (that doesn’t include all the spelling tests, math tests, history tests and state tests and on and on and on).

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.



© 2016 Dr. Michele Borba For more educational and parenting strategies follow me on twitter @MicheleBorba