Help Students Tackle Test Anxiety
Children of all ages can experience test-related stress that causes everything from sweaty palms and stomachaches to freezing up and forgetting everything during an exam.
Public school students start taking end-of-grade tests in third grade and continue these through middle school. They take end-of-course tests throughout high school; some middle school students take them as well. Teachers and psychologists say some level of anxiety is helpful if it motivates a student and doesn't interfere with quality of life. But when a child suffers repeated headaches, doesn't want to go to school, and can't fend off anxiety to focus on a test, it's time to make some changes.
"You do see kids who lock up around a test," says Kumar Sathy, a children's author in Durham who wrote Attack of the Chicken Nugget Man: A National Test Prep Adventure, which helps children practice for the test while using humor to alleviate fears.
Sathy, a former elementary school teacher, says he has counseled kids who were crying about a test. "For a 9-year-old to be that concerned is a concern," Sathy says. "If we focus on making sure they understand the concepts instead of focusing on how scary this monster of a test is, it makes more sense."
Longtime teacher and mother Ellen Govert, who teaches at Davis Drive Elementary in Cary, has 18 years of experience getting kids through test anxiety.
"Kids should have a realistic expectation of what's coming," says Govert, who emphasizes that teachers should not pass stress along to their students.
Govert gives students practice tests to prepare them for the standardized test. "It's somewhat like a coach preparing athletes," she says. Govert also asks parent volunteers to give struggling children additional practice.
Govert's other secret weapon is to give students packs of Smarties candies on test day to help them visualize their "smart" answers.
When anxiety gets out of hand, school and private counselors can teach children coping strategies, and parents can help children put their fears into perspective.
Eve Fontaine, a licensed psychologist with the Triangle Center for Behavioral Health, says anxiety disorders are the most common disorder in children, and for some it can be debilitating. It's important to tell children you understand their concerns, rather than brush them off, Fontaine advises.
In children with debilitating anxiety that affects their ability to function on a daily basis, medication is often used in combination with cognitive behavior therapy. "It's amazing how much improvement we see," Fontaine says.
Test anxiety prevention tips
Teachers and psychologists offer the following tips for test-taking and anxiety reduction:
• Realize the dangers of reassurance. It's a reflex to reassure kids that they will do great, but this creates a flip-side scenario where if they do not do well, things will not be "fine." Stick to praising kids' hard work.
• Talk about the test. Instead of fearing that if you say something it will "jinx" your child, ask what he or she is hearing about standardized tests.
• Practice useful skills. Make sure kids understand the concepts involved in the test and give them lots of advance practice.
• Stick with a routine. On test day, give children the same breakfast and follow the usual routine.
• Don't overanalyze a question. Read and respond only to what is printed on the test.
• Don't get stuck on a question. Try not to spend too much time on one question. Mark it and come back to it later.
• Check your work. Reviewing and correcting your work is a good test-taking strategy.
The good news for public students in North Carolina this year is that the end-of-grade and end-of-course tests are being re-normed statewide, which means the scores will not be received until the fall and will not be associated with promotion. For this year, at least, some of the pressure is off!
Carol McGarrahan is a Triangle-area freelance writer.