By Dr. Jonathan E. Romain, pediatric neuropsychologist at CHOC
Many parents know the disappointment of seeing their bright child score poorly on an exam even after hours of studying.
“I knew the answers before the test!” and “My mind went blank when I saw the test!” are common refrains from these frustrated children.
These aren’t excuses. What these children are experiencing can likely be attributed to test anxiety, a real phenomenon that occurs when nervousness goes into overdrive, causing physical, behavioral and cognitive consequences that can impact test scores.
Fortunately for parents and children alike, test anxiety can be managed and even conquered.
When anxiety takes over
Anxiety at its best provides a bit of nervousness that keeps people sharp and making sound decisions at key moments.
However, the problem occurs when anxiety becomes more intense than what is necessary for the situation. Many people – more than 30 percent – have difficulty keeping anxiety at a manageable level. For these people, excess anxiety can lead to poor performance, low self-esteem, and school avoidance and social isolation.
Anxiety symptoms usually first develop during the school-age years, when tests are introduced and awareness that classroom performance is monitored increases. During these formative years, children need good coping skills and strategies to manage anxiety.
Symptoms of test anxiety
To best manage test-taking and classroom anxiety, first identify the symptoms:
- Physical symptoms include increased heart rate, trembling or a shaky feeling, muscle tension, and feelings of lightheadedness.
- Behavioral symptoms include irritability, restlessness, rapid speech and fatigue.
- Cognitive or thought-related symptoms include difficulty focusing and concentrating, memory problems, poor problem solving, and persistent worrying.
Test anxiety can also self-perpetuate or reinforce itself. So, if a child had a bad experience on one test, it’s likely they will have similar feelings again. After several experiences, the child may feel that all tests are miserable and to be avoided.
Managing test anxiety
Parents, teachers and students should work together to control anxiety.
Parents should reward success and reinforce good effort, but know that too high expectations and unrealistic goals may have a negative effect. They should also ensure they control their own anxieties, as children can sense emotions and model learned behaviors.
Parents and schools should work together to identify test-taking anxiety as it occurs and ensure realistic expectations. Teachers can modify time constraints and put equal emphasis on homework, projects and classroom tests. Additionally, they can grade more for effort than output. Less emphasis on grades can diminish anxiety and improve grades.
Finally, children can manage their anxiety by identifying symptoms and practicing progressive relaxation and other deep breathing techniques to calm down. They should also be encouraged to talk to parents and teachers when feel overwhelmed.
They can also try journaling: A recent study at the universities of Colorado and Chicago suggested that writing about anxiety before taking a test reduced anxiety’s impact on performance. The idea is that by writing about the anxiety, test takers let go of symptoms and can concentrate better on the task.
Anxiety has a protective factor in dangerous or life-threatening situations, and a reasonable dose of nervousness can help one perform at their peak. But it is essential to know the symptoms of anxiety and to keep them in check so they do not take over. Learning to manage anxiety in the school-age years is the first step to an anxiety-free adulthood.
Dr. Romain is a board-certified clinical neuropsychologist at CHOC. Dr. Romain completed his pre-doctoral internship at Franciscan Hospital for Children in Boston and a two-year American Psychological Association accredited fellowship in pediatric neuropsychology at Medical College of Wisconsin. Learn more about Dr. Romain.