Teaching Kids to Cope with Test Anxiety

test anxiety

It happens every time:  On the day of a big test your child comes to you with a list of complaints.  It starts with a headache.  When that doesn’t work, it becomes a cold.  And when that doesn’t work…the dreaded stomachache. 

Test anxiety is a very real and very upsetting form of social anxiety for kids.  It can happen to elementary school students and it can continue through college.  Some kids simply fear test taking. 

They fear failure.  They fear negative evaluations by their parents and teachers.  They might even fear measuring up to their peers.

What all of this distorted thinking results in are symptoms of panic and anxiety.  There is nothing invented about those physical complaints that your child is plagued by every time a math test, or even state testing, rolls around.  Test anxiety can cause changes in appetite, stomachaches, sleep disturbance, increased heart rate, headaches, and even mild flu-like symptoms.

It’s essential to teach kids how to cope with test anxiety so that they can manage their emotions instead of freezing up during tests. Here are some tips to help them do just that.

Reframe it.

Kids who struggle with test anxiety have a tendency to overinflate the importance of the test.  Help your child or adolescent put the test into perspective.  While state testing is implemented to measure the success of the school (not the individual), it’s also important to understand that grades, in general, are not based on one specific test.

A little perspective can go a long way toward helping a child focus on the whole learning experience.

Teach positive self-talk.

Anxious kids tend to suffer from irrational or distorted thinking.  They often get into negative thought patterns.  This can create a self-fulfilling prophecy.  They tell themselves they will fail, their anxiety peaks, and they freeze up in the classroom.

Teach your child to use positive self-statements when negative thoughts arise.  “I know I can finish the test” is a positive reframe for “I’ll never get through this so I will fail.”  Teaching kids to replace a negative with a positive can help decrease the heart rate and reduce other symptoms of panic in the moment. 

{ MORE: 6 Ways to Handle Anxiety as a Mom }

Teach relaxation breathing.

Symptoms of panic happen quickly and can be very scary, particularly for young children.  When your heart rate increases and you start breathing very quickly, you can start to feel dizzy.

Teach your child to slow down her breathing when anxiety spikes.  In a calm moment, have your child lie down and breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of three, and breathe out for a count of four.  Practice daily (before bed is a great time for relaxation breathing).  Regular yoga practice can also improve relaxation breathing.

Brain dump.

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Anxious thoughts tend to run on a continuous loop.  It can be hard to break the cycle once it begins.

Writing out anxious thoughts helps kids get the thoughts out of their heads.  Plan time for a brain dump before a test.  Set a timer for five minutes and have your child write down every anxious thought.  When the timer beeps, have your child tear up the paper and throw it away.  Send those anxious thoughts to the trash. 

Create a ritual.

Anxiety often stems from feeling a loss of control.  Help your child regain some control on test taking days by creating a specific ritual.  A certain breakfast before each test is a great start to a routine.  Your child might want to wear a favorite shirt and listen to a favorite song on the way to school.

When the test lands on your child’s desk, teach your child to do three relaxation breaths, scan the whole test front to back, and begin with the section that she knows the best. 

{ MORE: Raising Good Humans: How to Teach Kindness to Children }

Does your child have test anxiety?  What strategies do you use?

What do you think?

Teaching Kids to Cope with Test Anxiety

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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4 comments

  1. John says:

    A simple, yet effective tool to greatly reduce test anxiety is EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique). I use it with many students and it is a great help.

  2. Phammom says:

    I wish I knew this when I was in school. However I am very glad it’s here as the one I nanny for has bad anxiety and I can see this working for him.

  3. MAMASEXXY says:

    I WISH THEY WOULD HAVE THOUGHT OF THIS WHEN I WAS IN SCHOOL.

  4. MAMASEXXY says:

    THIS IS SOMETHING THAT IS MUCH NEEDED.

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