Take the Stress Out of Tests
Helping Your Child Stay Calm and Focused
By Larry Anderson
Any student can tell you: Tests cause stress. That stress can come from many places. Most students want to perform well on tests, so a little anxiety is natural. On top of that, children—especially teenagers— can be subject to a swirling mass of emotions, causing them to doubt and criticize themselves. They may feel pressure to perform as well as their friends. And then they may feel pressure from their parents, especially when it comes to the SAT, which many colleges and universities use to measure a student’s readiness for college.
The type of test can matter a great deal. Standardized tests can be especially very stressful.
Talk About the Problem
The first thing to remember is that stress is contagious. As the parent of a child facing a test, try not to stress out about that test yourself. Children take cues from their parents all the time, and sensing your stress and anxiety can add to their own.
Instead, talk to your child about the pressure they may be facing. Ask them how they’re dealing with it, and ask follow-up questions. Do they know what specifically is making them anxious about this test? Is it a lack of preparation and planning that caused a bad outcome on the test? Do they feel extra stress because of the high expectation of others? Are they trying too hard to compete with their peers? The more a child understands the source of their anxiety, the easier it is for them to put those fears in perspective and work to overcome them.
They’re different from typical tests, with rigid rules and timing. The teacher may act differently on the day of a standardized test, as they’re allowed less flexibility than they might use in a normal classroom setting. Midterms and final exams also carry more importance and expectation, and therefore more stress, than other tests.
Whatever the reason, tests—and the stress they can cause—are a reality in school environments, and typically at every grade level. A little stress can play a positive role in test-taking, when it motivates a child to push toward a positive outcome. But too much stress can negatively affect a student’s performance, not to mention the effect it can have on their health. So what can parents do to help children deal with test-related stress?
Talking about stress with parents or others can help. Stress-related anxiety does the most harm when kept bottled up inside. Encourage your child to share their feelings about it.
It’s also important to make sure you know what tests your child has coming up and when. This can help you help your child prepare for upcoming tests, of course. But it can also help the child to know that you’re aware of what they’re dealing with.
Ways to Work Through Stress
It’s possible to help your child work through some of their stress. But first, you need to recognize the signs. Do they quickly change the subject or grow irritated when you ask about upcoming tests? Do they display a loss or lack of appetite? Do they get headaches?
If your child is dealing with stress while studying, allow them to pause, relax, take some deep breaths, and then push on with the job at hand. A variety of activities can help to push stress to the side, whether listening to classical music, taking a walk, or even petting the family dog or cat. And believe it or not, dark chocolate has been shown to fight the stress hormone cortisol, to release endorphins, and to have an overall relaxing effect.
No matter what test your child is preparing to take, there are some things he or she can do to make the experience easier and less intimidating.
It may sound obvious, but preparation is key. Keeping up with schoolwork and homework in the days and weeks leading up to a test can help reduce a child’s fear that they’re not ready. “Cramming,” or trying to catch up on a ton of information immediately before a test, can be ineffective, and only cause more stress.
Help your child maintain good study habits, which can strip away the stress of testing and replace it with confidence. Encourage them to manage their study time effectively, review their basic skills and work on improving their vocabulary.
Avoid distractions and don’t try to multitask: Think of the brain as a spotlight that can only focus on one thing at a time.
Determine what will be covered on the test. The more a student knows about what to expect from a test, the less anxiety he or she is likely to feel. Always go to review sessions, and try not to miss class the last day right before the test.
Try to determine the test format in advance. How long will it be? Will there be an essay portion? What’s allowed and what’s not? Will they lose points for a wrong answer?
If your child is facing a standardized test, the student should take one or more practice tests if possible, reading each question carefully and identifying key words so that they understand exactly what the question is asking. Encourage your child to evaluate multiple-choice questions, eliminating each answer until only the correct one remains.
Above all, make sure your child maintains a positive attitude, gets enough sleep and has a proper breakfast on the day of the test.
Excessive stress is not inevitable when students face a test. With the right physical and mental preparation, your child can process their stress, minimize the effects, and put it in its place.
During the Test
- Come prepared. Bring the proverbial No. 2 pencil (or better yet, two!), and a calculator or whatever else you’ll need.
- Stay relaxed. Don’t panic. Take deep breaths to relax and maintain a positive attitude.
- Have a plan, and execute it. Go through and answer the easiest questions first, or the ones that have the highest point value. Then come back to the rest as time permits. Read questions carefully and pay attention to details.
- Use all your time. Don’t compete to finish first, or worry about when others finish. Don’t rush, but pace yourself. If you have extra time at the end, use it to check over your work to avoid careless mistakes.