Students of all ages are faced with tests. Standardized tests, unit tests, and tests called assessments. Many students have testing jitters, but they aren’t sure how to express them. Here’s some inside information on how we can help our children with their testing jitters.
When speaking with students about their tests, we often hear phrases like:
- I just…blanked…I couldn’t remember anything I studied!
- My stomach hurt SO bad!
- I just wanted to get it over with
- I felt like I couldn’t breathe
- I was afraid that I would fail
- I didn’t want to be the last one finished
- I don’t know what happened, I thought I understood everything but I failed my test
Do any of these sound familiar?
In a country that still relies heavily on standardized tests to measure student learning, almost all American kids will experience some form of test anxiety or testing jitters during their K-12 career. Though most tests aren’t life-altering, the perceived high pressure can trigger a unique physical and mental response in your child that has the potential to affect their grades and their perception of themselves as a learner. The good news is that you can help your child practice managing their test anxiety long before those high stakes SATs and ACTs roll around.
Understanding the Triggers of Testing Jitters
There is a wide range of triggers your child might experience when it comes to testing anxiety. Some students experience a “spiral” of worries that distract them during assessments. These students get so focused on what might happen if they do poorly, that they are unable to do their best. This may originate from poor experiences with past tests that make them fear they might experience the emotions of failure again.
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Others find it hard to not focus on what peers are doing or how they might be perceived by others in their class. Students may also fear that they haven’t prepared adequately enough for the task ahead causing them to obsess over their study routine. Anxiety in any form can make it extremely difficult for students to show what they know on the test, and in turn, can create more test anxiety the next time—causing a cycle that is hard to break.
Understanding the Physical and Mental Responses from Testing Jitters
Test anxiety can present itself in many ways. Physically, it can cause sweating, upset stomach, not taking proper deep breaths and many other physical discomforts. Mentally, test anxiety can cause a fight or flight response in the brain, making it hard for your child to access their working memory resulting in that “blanking” feeling of not being able to remember information they once knew. These responses can make it difficult for your students to do their best during an assessment.
Relaxation Techniques Can Help with Testing Jitters
There are techniques your child can utilize to help calm their body and mind before and during a test. Having a toolbox full of calming techniques can help your child get themselves mentally and physically ready to show what they know.
Help your child try these techniques to find which work best for them:
- Suck on a piece of hard candy or sip water
- Take square breaths
- Imagine a happy space (recall what the space smells, feels, and sounds like)
- Stretch the neck, hands, and any other body parts that can be stretched while not getting up or being distracting
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Adopting a Growth Mindset around Tests
Mindset can play a large role in how students feel going into an assessment. If a student is excessively worried about doing poorly, doesn’t believe in their abilities, or is worried about what their peers are doing, they are more likely to experience test anxiety and lower scores. Helping your child adopt a growth centered mindset could be the key to less stress on test day. Here are a few things to try when helping your child adopt a better mindset around assessments:
Talk about what learning actually looks like
When we learn something new, we aren’t blessed with the knowledge right away- we often have to work for it. Some students believe that if a concept doesn’t come naturally it means they aren’t good at it. Discuss with your child that knowledge is something that can grow over time, and that working to learn something strengthens their ability and skill. Remind them that if we never make mistakes or slip-ups, we aren’t learning anything new.
Help your child change their self-talk
Students can be really mean to themselves. Part of this is the negative self-talk they use when taking tests. Thoughts like “I can’t do this” or “I’m so dumb” can bring your child into anxiety territory quickly. If you think your child is struggling with harmful self-talk, try to help them replace negative phrases with positive ones. If they don’t feel comfortable cheering themselves on, encourage them to imagine you or their favorite celebrity standing on their shoulder saying positive things.
Try replacing negative self-talk with some of these phrases:
- I can do this, I just need to try my best
- This is challenging, but I’m up for a challenge
- I can do hard things
- It’s okay to get frustrated
- Getting stumped doesn’t mean I’m not capable
Set goals for tests and focus on competing with oneself
Competition can sound unhealthy, but it can be helpful when it comes to testing anxiety if you encourage your child to compete with themselves instead of competing with others. Help your student set an actionable goal for their test, such as making a B or getting a higher grade than last time. Guide your child through setting up action steps to meet the goal, and check-in with them regularly to see how the action steps are going. This can help your child feel more in control on testing day.
Along with all these techniques, it’s always important to make sure your student is able to get a good night’s sleep, a good dinner, and breakfast, and is able to prepare adequately before testing day.
If your child is experiencing extreme test anxiety that is affecting their physical and mental well being, it is important to speak with their teacher or school counselor to find solutions. In some cases, extreme test anxiety can point to learning or attention issues that need to be addressed to help students feel more comfortable in their learning environment and reach their full potential.
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