Understanding Test Anxiety and What We Can Do to Help Children

A staggering 16-20% of students have high test anxiety, making it the most frequent academic impairment in our schools today Another 18% are troubled by moderately-high test anxiety. These students actually draw a "blank" or "freeze-up" during tests.
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Test anxiety is a bigger problem than many parents and teachers realize.

A staggering 16-20% of students have high test anxiety, making it the most frequent academic impairment in our schools today Another 18% are troubled by moderately-high test anxiety. These students actually draw a "blank" or "freeze-up" during tests. Students with high anxiety perform around 12 percentile points below their low anxiety peers; regardless of how much effort and time they put into studying.

Adults can mistakenly jump to the conclusion that the student didn't really study, didn't study efficiently (crammed), or that they were having a bad day. Kids often blame themselves, telling themselves that they just need to try harder or study longer. When students have test anxiety, they can study their heads off and it won't help--too much studying can actually hinder their performance.

Dr. Robert Pressman, the lead researcher for New England Pediatric Psychology describes test anxiety as having three distinct components: Physiological, behavioral and psychological.

  • Physiological: light-headed, faint, nauseous, rapid heartbeat, knot in stomach, headache, tension, sweating.
  • Behavioral : "going blank" or having disorganized thoughts.
  • Psychological : feeling extremely nervous, restlessness, or insecure.

The solution lies in their taking control of the test, not letting the test control them.

"I always encourage my patients to talk with their teacher in advance of the test and find out the exact format. Knowledge is power, and these students need to feel empowered." Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman told me. She is my co-author on The Learning Habit: A Groundbreaking Approach to Homework and Parenting That Helps Our Children Succeed in School and Life.

Donaldson-Pressman, LICSW, works with both athletes and students who suffer from test and performance anxiety. She still frequently works with students as they prepare to take the SAT, but admits a disturbing new trend; her clients are getting younger and younger each year. She now regularly treats children as young as 5 years old who are struggling with anxiety in the classroom.

Her approach begins with teaching children relaxation exercises:
Deep breathing, a cue, and a positive message. In a testing situation, the setup is the most important part. When students are handed the test, the strategy is to first turn the paper(s) over to the blank side, do the cuing action (usually touching the temple), take the deep breaths, and silently say a rehearsed message.

Here's the one I use with my kids: "I know this. I am the boss of this test. I can do this." Only then should they turn the test over and begin.

As with other testing strategies, Donaldson-Pressman also teaches children to answer all the questions they know first -- rather than wasting time on questions they don't know and letting anxiety build.

In her optimistic voice, Donaldson-Pressman coaches children through her proven methods. "First rule of thumb is show me what you DO know!" Her patients are then reminded that when they feel anxious, turn the paper over and repeat the relaxation exercise. It literally takes seconds, but makes all the difference.

Sometimes children are afraid to do this because "it will waste time" on a timed exam. Have them practice it at home; when they doing homework assignments are preparing for the test.

Donaldson-Pressman has seen how fast and effective the technique can be with test anxiety. "They will be shocked to discover that the whole process--turning the paper over, cuing, two or three deep breaths, saying the message internally, and turning the paper back over--takes less than 15 seconds!"

This works great with paper and pencil tests, but what about online testing?

The principle is the same; the challenge is greater. Children go through the same cuing, breathing, and empowering self-statement ritual. Often, they are able to employ it when they have gotten an answer wrong or between test sections. If there is no break at all and kids have just two or three minutes to answer each question, they can still use the technique.

When they start to feel anxious or overwhelmed, they give themselves permission to close their eyes and take 10 to 15 seconds to do the relaxation exercise before reading the next statement, question, or problem.

They will be better able to use the remaining time than if they had tried to come up with an answer when their brain was unable to fully focus.

TIPS: Preparing for a Test
•Use visual aids to study
•If you are an auditory learner, read passages out loud while studying
•Get the exact format of the test in advance from your teacher. Practice answering questions in that format
Practice relaxation techniques and use them during the test
•Begin studying at least one week prior
•Exercise the day before
•Arrive on time or early
2015-03-09-1425903402-2417695-ThisBloggersBook.jpgLearn More About How Students Can Achieve Success in School and Life in Rebecca Jackson's new book, The Learning Habit.


Cassady, J. & Johnson, R. (2001). Cognitive test anxiety and academic performance.
Contemporary Educational Psychology, 27, 270-295.

George Washington University, University Counseling Center. Test Anxiety. http://gwired.gwu.edu/counsel/index.gw/Site_ID/5176/Page_ID/14095/

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