Updated: Oct 3, 2021
What Is Test Anxiety?
Test anxiety is actually a type of performance anxiety. This means your child will have disproportionally high negative feelings and stress that are brought on by feeling their test performance really counts or when the pressure's on to do well.
About 16-20% of students have high test anxiety, making it a major academic impairment in schools. On top of that, another 18% of students have moderately-high test anxiety. If your child is part of the nearly 40% of students who suffer from test anxiety, they aren't alone and there are ways you can help them cope and overcome it.
What test anxiety looks like in kids
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) describes what test anxiety looks like from a physical, emotional, and behavioural context. Symptoms vary from child to child, but knowing the signs can help you identify and work through test anxiety with your child.
Physical symptoms. Headache, nausea, diarrhoea, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, light-headedness, and feeling faint can all occur. Test anxiety can lead to a panic attack, which is the abrupt onset of intense fear or discomfort in which individuals may feel like they are unable to breathe or having a heart attack.
Emotional symptoms. Feelings of anger, fear, helplessness, and disappointment are common emotional responses to test anxiety.
Behavioral/Cognitive symptoms. Difficulty concentrating, thinking negatively, and comparing yourself to others are common symptoms of test anxiety.
Symptoms of test anxiety go way beyond normal butterflies and pre-test jitters and move into a place where the child is impaired and unable to function properly.
Consequences of test anxiety if left unresolved
We all know the feelings of pressure and stress that tests can bring on. But test anxiety is much more severe and has real consequences, not just academically, but on self-esteem and emotional wellbeing.
Students with high anxiety perform around 12 percentile points below their low anxiety peers; regardless of how much effort and time they put into studying.
Experts at leading online mental health hub Verywellmind confirm the mental and emotional effects test anxiety can have.
"Emotional symptoms of test anxiety can include depression, low self-esteem, anger, and a feeling of hopelessness. Students often feel helpless to change their situation or belittle and berate themselves for their symptoms and poor test performance." -Kendra Cherry, Verywellmind.com
Mindful ways to help your kids through test anxiety
Practice relaxation techniques
It's a good idea to get your child into a calm state of mind leading up to a test. Before bed or after a study session try these quick exercises with them. They can also be used on the day of the test to help them self-soothe anxiety when you are not there.
Muscle tension and release - with feet planted firmly on the floor, place hands under the seat of the chair and grab on. Push feet down firmly on the ground while pulling up on the chair with your arms. Do this for 5 seconds then release. Repeat 5 times.
Visualization - close your eyes and imagine a special place. Imagine you are writing your test in this space and you feel the test is simple and you are going through each question easily. Imagine the feelings you have that you are doing so well on the test. Where are your feelings in your body? Name those feelings. Describe how they make you feel. Now imagine handing in your test and smiling knowing you did your best and feeling confident you did well. After a few minutes of visualizing you can open your eyes and allow those positive feelings to remain in your body.
Prepare in small study chunks.
Teaching kids to prepare early for a test will be a great skill to take them all the way through college. Start with small 5-10 minute study sessions of the material they will be covering on the test about a week before. (It can be 2 weeks out for older kids with bigger tests.)
You can also support preparation by doing one or two practice tests ahead of time that will simulate a real test and help them be ready for test day.
Practice positive thinking.
Remind your child that all they can do is try their best and that the outcome isn't as important as their effort. Give them some easy affirmations to repeat during the days leading up to the test such as:
"I am ready. I can do this."
"I've done my best and I am prepared for this test."
"No matter what happens, I am proud of my effort."
It's also important to remember to block negative thinking. Things like: "I'm going to do so bad on this test." will only increase anxiety. Let them know that when these kinds of thoughts come up to simply let them go and 'switch' to a more positive affirmation.
Breathing techniques right before a test.
The moments leading up to a test can be the toughest part, and where things usually unravel. The best way to cope can be to do some easy breathing techniques right at their desk. If you need ideas, you can try finger breathing from my blog post 4 Daily Mindfulness Techniques for Kids.
Parent support is the best support.
No matter what techniques you and your child choose to help them cope with test anxiety, the most important one will be you. Keeping positive with them and being encouraging and reassuring will help them tremendously as they learn to cope with taking tests.
If you'd like more support, you can download my free Mindfulness Tool Box for Kids and Families and start making mindfulness an important tool for your child's learning.