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"But Mom, What If I Don't Get An A?" What Kids Think About Taking Tests and What Parents Can Do About It

by Amy Krain Roy, PhD

All children feel some level of anxiety about taking tests. For some, however, this anxiety is overwhelming: it may start days or weeks before the test, cause headaches, stomachaches, or trouble sleeping, and can interfere with test performance (i.e., freezing up). Since the current challenges of academic schedules and state- and city-wide testing are rigorous, these children may be suffering during a significant portion of the school year.

Why do kids worry and how can parents help? There are many reasons why a child may be nervous about test taking. It will be easier to help him or her if you know exactly what he or she is worried about. Following are some common worries and suggested solutions:

"If I don't do well on this test, I'll get a low mark and then I won't be able to get into a good college which means that I won't get into a top law school and then I can kiss a good job goodbye!"

Whew! Exhausting, isn't it? This type of thinking is called catastrophizing and if this is how your child or teenager is thinking, of course he's anxious. In this situation, it is most helpful for you to help your child take a step back and develop a more realistic or rational approach. Help him to see that he will have many opportunities and that his entire future does not rest on the outcome of one test.

"I'm going to fail!"

This thought can have very different meanings depending on the child. For some, this is another instance of catastrophizing where they are afraid of failing despite the fact that they have never received a grade below an A. Talk to these children about the likelihood of failing given their previous experiences.

Other children may not perform well at school, and their concern about failing might be realistic. In this situation, work closely with the child's teacher to identify areas of strength and weakness so that the proper supports can be implemented. When a child is struggling, she may have a learning disorder or other problem, and a full psychoeducational evaluation may be warranted.

"The other kids (or teacher) are going to think I'm dumb if I don't do well."

If your child is worried about what others will think, remind her that all children have strengths and weaknesses, and it really doesn't matter how other kids do. The important thing is that your child work hard and do his best. You may also talk with your child's teacher(s) to find out how test results are reported to the class; sometimes a teacher may inadvertently (or not so inadvertently) contribute to class competition by announcing or posting grades publicly.

"There's no way I can memorize all this!"

As children advance through middle school and high school, the material is less structured and tests are based on information from class notes and textbooks. Helping your child to organize the material can help him to feel more in control. Parents can help by finding out from the child or the teacher what material will be covered on a test and then breaking down the material into manageable pieces. Help the child develop a studying schedule spread over a few days or a week in advance of the test to avoid "all–nighters." This scheduling skill enables the child to feel successful meeting smaller goals and is likely to help him to feel less overwhelmed.

"I just freeze as soon as I look at all those questions on the test!"

Your child can also use organizational skills on the test itself. Some children are overwhelmed when they see a long test with a lot of questions. Teaching them to see the test in sections and to work on one section at a time can help them to move past the "freezing" point. Parents can also talk to the teacher(s) about the possibility of only giving 1–2 pages of the test at a time or including fewer problems on a page, to help reduce anxiety.

"I just feel totally stressed out!"

Many children (and adults) do not know how to manage the physical feelings of stress. However, feeling relaxed is just as important for successful test taking, if not more, as good preparation. If your child looks anxious or reports headaches, stomachaches, or sleep problems around tests, techniques to manage these feelings are particularly important. Teach your child ways to relax either the night or morning before a test. Deep breathing, meditative techniques, and progressive muscle relaxation are good tools to start with. These skills should be practiced even when your child is not nervous, so that she learns to use them effectively. Your child might suggest other activities such as listening to music or reading a book or magazine. For some children, doing something they enjoy, like playing the piano or drawing, might be relaxing. All of these can be built into the routine on the day of the test or night before. Also, the night before a test, children should be encouraged to complete their studying 30–60 minutes before bedtime so that they have a chance to relax and wind down before going to sleep. Kids can also learn relaxation techniques that can be used during the test to decrease anxiety. Children who have practiced strategies ahead of time that are not disruptive, such as deep breathing or muscle relaxation, can use these in the classroom.

If your child is so anxious about tests and school performance that these strategies do not seem to work, additional interventions may be necessary. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), for example, teaches children more effective coping strategies for managing anxiety and provides structured opportunities to practice these new skills.

Date Published: March 23, 2007