Children need help to understand and manage anxiety. The trouble is that their anxiety is harder to identify and even harder for them to put into words. Take, for example, my little brother. When he was in elementary school he was treated as a “bad kid” because he would disappear on bathroom breaks and not come back to class. When we’d sit down to talk to him, we found out that he wasn’t just trying to skip class – his stomach hurt and he didn’t want to go back into the classroom. Why? He was nervous to take his spelling tests. What some teachers saw as a misbehaving child was actually a young boy anxious and worried sick to fail his spelling tests.
Test anxiety is more common in children than you’d think. I remember having timed multiplication table tests that made me panic and forget all the work I had studied the night before because I was being chased by the clock. In my college Japanese classes, I would get so anxious to the point of nausea because I had to comprehend and respond to my Japanese teachers prompts on demand in front of the class for a grade. Test anxiety can last well into adulthood if not approached with patience, understanding, and empowerment. If you have a child that is nervous to pass a test or participate in class, there are ways you can help them to manage anxiety before it becomes overwhelming or causes sickness.
Signs of Anxiety in Children
The first step is to be mindful and watchful of symptoms of anxiety. Common signs include:
- Being very afraid to start school or get on the bus
- Behaving normally for the majority of the school day then getting sick before a certain class
- This is true of the virtual learning day as well – they may act out or experience sickness even while at home
- Trouble sleeping?
- Disengaging with friends, family, and or school material
- Physical symptoms like fatigue, headaches, or stomachaches
- Irritability and anger?
Trained therapists can help to diagnose true anxiety disorders, but talking with your child and understanding their schedules may be able to help you identify test-related anxiety. As a first step, you can take this free online test to see if your child’s symptoms align with an anxiety disorder.
How to Manage Anxiety from Test Taking
- Ask questions: It’s easy to project why your child is thinking/reacting a certain way. When my brother was “skipping class”, teachers assumed it was because he was bored or misbehaving. By asking your child simple questions about their anxiety, it will help you to better understand where their worries are coming from while helping them to understand and work through their feelings. The answers may surprise you! For instance, they might not be afraid of failing the test as much as they’re afraid to be made fun of, or scolded by the teacher. Try asking questions like:
- Do you worry about taking the test for a long time before you take it, or just when you take it?
- How does it make you feel when the teacher passes out the test?
- What is your biggest worry about taking the test?
- Talk to the teacher: Certain parts of the test-taking experience can be particularly stressful. In the case of my brother, he hated that students were told to put their heads down once they completed and he would be the only one left with his head up as he was completing the test. Teachers should be able to accommodate children with simple solutions, such as a privacy folder or taking the test in another room, to help your child succeed and feel more confident.
- Give words of encouragement: You can’t promise your child that they won’t fail the test, but you can encourage them to try their best and reassure them that if they do fail, it will be okay. Explain that test taking is just a tool to see what areas they are great at and where they need to get a bit more practice. Make sure your child knows that you are their advocate and that if they are truly working their best, you won’t be disappointed but will look for ways to help them be successful.
- Teach test-taking skills: Providing your child with some basic strategies to get through a tough test will help them to feel more confident and capable rather than overwhelmed. Some common and effective strategies are:
- Answer the easy questions first and mark the hard ones to come back to
- Read the directions carefully
- Use the process of elimination to help find the correct answer
- When it comes to the end of your time, remember that any answer is better than no answer at all
- Empower them to change the narrative: Children are capable of changing their perspective to help them manage anxiety and how they view stressors. Encourage them to get rid of ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts) like “I’m stupid” or “I’m going to fail.” Instead, shift the narrative to “I can keep practicing once I find out where I need help,” “Mistakes are okay,” and “I can do better next time.”
- Teach them calming techniques: It’s easy to get gobbled up by overwhelming and stressful emotions. By teaching your children easy-to-use calming techniques, it will help them to manage anxiety before and during the test. At HAPPÉ, we help kids to feel calm and in control of their emotions by teaching EFT, or emotional freedom techniques. EFT, also called “tapping“, is an extremely effective and noninvasive stress management technique that mimics acupuncture. By stimulating or “tapping” certain points on the body while focusing on their test anxiety, it can help children to feel calmer and more in control of their minds and bodies. If you want to give tapping a go for yourself, you can learn more here!
At any age, tests can be a stressful ordeal. However, we fully believe that children can take control of their emotional well-being with a little bit of guidance. For more advice on how to help your child manage anxiety from tests or any scenario, feel free to contact us or join us on social media for even more parenting tips!