Stress test: Helping kids lessen testing anxiety


To combat testing anxiety, students should have some go-to solutions such as engaging in a brief relaxing activity, outlining notes or playing a memory game. (iStock photo / Getty Images)

Guest post by Maggie Sonnek

Mae Hyser is one smart cookie. At 12 years old, she already has her career planned out: become a writer and an illustrator. And mom Beth couldn’t be prouder.

“She’s kind of a Type-A personality,” Beth Hyser laughs. But, as end-of-the-year finals and projects approach, sixth-grader Mae is aware of the extra pressure. And so is her mom.

Are your kids stressed over tests? Here are some tips to help kids like Mae – and their parents – decrease stress and improve results.

Set up good study habits at an early age

It sounds obvious, right? Michelle Goldwin, MA, doctoral psychology intern at Children’s, says developing effective study habits earlier is a way for kids to feel more confident about their abilities to study and take tests.

“We’re noticing kids are becoming nervous about tests earlier and earlier,” she explains. “There are more standardized tests sooner; kids are learning that they have to do well in order to get good grades…to get into a good college…to get a good job.”

To combat that anxiety, students should have some go-to solutions at the ready, such as engaging in a brief relaxing activity, outlining notes or playing a memory game.

Create a positive bedtime routine

Bedtime can be the hardest time of the day for parents. But, it doesn’t have to be. Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, MA, writes about practical strategies for getting a good night’s sleep in her book, Sleepless in America.

“Researchers have discovered that the sleep/wake cycle, or what researchers like to call the circadian rhythm, runs on a cycle closer to 25 hours than 24,” she writes. “In order to bring your child’s cycle into line with a 24 hour day, you have to set it with cues, like light and a regular sleep-and-wake schedule.”

Create a calming end-of-day routine, whether it’s quiet music, dim lighting or a scented candle.

Here are more ways to help your kids get a good night’s sleep.

Take breaks and use incentives

Even at the college level, students are still encouraged to take breaks. MIT supports several scheduled breaks throughout the day, saying, “Our minds need an occasional rest in order to stay alert and productive, and you can look forward to a reward as you study.”

For 12-year-old Mae that reward is a few coveted minutes on the iPad, which mom will gladly hand over after she practices her spelling words.

Value your child’s self-worth

Both Goldwin and Beth Hyser expound on the importance of valuing kids beyond the report card.

Goldwin says, “Parents can remind their kids, ‘I like that you’re working hard on this and giving it your all.’ But, be sure to remind them that they’re also a great artist or bowler. There are lots of special things about each child.”

Beth Hyser agrees. “If a C is your best, then that’s great.”

Change the way you think

Goldwin and the rest of the team in Psychological Services at Children’s utilize Cognitive Behavioral Therapy as a way to help patients with anxiety.

“We encourage students to pay attention to their negative thoughts, like ‘I’m not going to do well on this test’ and replace them with more helpful thoughts, like ‘I’ve studied and I feel confident that I know this material.’ ”

Practice self-care

This means eating a hearty breakfast the morning of a test, staying away from caffeinated beverages and paying attention to breathing.

“Before the day of the test, I encourage kids to practice deep breathing by placing a hand on their bellies,” Goldwin says. “Then, slowly breathe out and notice that their belly deflates.” She adds that sometimes she draws the analogy of the stomach being like a balloon that’s filling with air and then emptying.

Lessening testing anxiety may not always be easy for kids, but these strategies can get them started on the path to a less stressful testing season.

In what ways do you work with your kids to lessen anxiety before tests or other stressful times? Share in the comments.

More information: Psychological Services at Children’s

Maggie Sonnek is a writer, blogger, lover-of-outdoors and momma to two young kiddos. When she’s not kissing boo-boos or cutting up someone’s food, she likes to beat her husband at Scrabble.

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