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Children's test-taking anxiety

Tracy Oppenheim  

Tracy Oppenheim, Psychiatrist at Cardon Children's Medical Center.

Question: How do I deal with my child’s test-taking anxiety?

Answer: Generally students all experience some level of stress/anxiety before an exam.  In fact, a little bit of nervousness can be beneficial by helping motivate students to prepare and do their best.

However, too much anxiety can be devastating.  Test-taking anxiety is a type of performance anxiety.  Symptoms can be mild to severe and can include physical symptoms such as "butterflies" in you stomach, headache, feeling shaky and sweaty, racing heart, throwing up and even passing out.  These physical symptoms are caused by adrenaline that is released by your body in stressful situations and is known as the "fight or flight" response. Physical symptoms are often accompanied by self-defeating thoughts.

The majority of the time mild test-taking anxiety can be combated with a few simple techniques.  Assure your daughter that her reaction is normal. Then, ask what you can do to help her study or get organized for the test. 

Being prepared is the best way to reduce anxiety about exams. Your daughter needs to be kind to both her mind and body.  Physically, one of the best ways to relieve stress is exercise. Just a 20 minute study break of dancing, running or even climbing the stairs can help alleviate mental stress. You should also develop regular bedtime routines for better sleep patterns and encourage healthy eating—they don’t say that vitamins are brain food for nothing! 

In addition, positive attitude goes a long way.  Negative thoughts such as "I'm stupid or I'm going to bomb this test" interfere with our ability to concentrate.  Have your daughter focus on the material she knows well and not focus on what she might not know. 

Also help her put exams in perspective.  Yes, doing well is important but at the end of the day it's only one exam.  
If it is standardized tests that make her worry, teach her to manage her time well.  When the test is handed out, have her take a few deep breaths in and out to center herself and then slowly read the directions.  Skimming through the test will help her get an idea how to pace herself.  Start with the "slam dunk" questions first to build her confidence and then move on to the more difficult material.  If she gets stuck on a question have her circle it and move on coming back to it at the end.  Using these easy techniques will help your daughter begin to relax and to concentrate on doing her best—not the best—on the test.

For moderate to severe performance anxiety seeking professional help may be warranted.  Evidence of significant test-taking anxiety includes repeated test scores that are lower than performance on daily work, severe physical symptoms, and teacher's being surprised by the low test score.  In addition significant test-taking anxiety may be a symptom of other anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder or social anxiety disorder.   Anxiety disorders are very treatable and seeking out professional help should not be delayed!


Page Last Modified: 08/05/2013
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