We (almost) all know the feelings that come over us on Test Day: nervous stomach, sweaty palms, racing heart, dread, dread, dread. As an adult, I can clearly remember the late nights and tear-filled calls to my dad before big tests – in college, even in grad school. Even now, the words “test” or “quiz” have the ability to put a tight little ball in the pit of my stomach.
Test anxiety is alive and well, and, odds are, your kids are experiencing it.
The Problem with Testing
I could get up on a soapbox about how frustrating and disappointing it is that our education system is so saturated with tests of achievement, rather than tests of potential. But don’t worry, that’s not what this article is about. It is, however, really important that we not neglect how rare it is for a student to know the difference between what different exams measure. They just don’t know.
So what happens? Kids worry that a certain score on a certain test means that they’ll never be “smart enough” or have memorized enough or understand certain concepts thoroughly enough to prove that they’re “smart” or deserving or able to move forward academically. Some of these worries may be vocalized directly to parents or peers, but just as commonly, kids are holding onto these doubts on their own.
While educators from all spheres are consistently students’ biggest cheerleaders, somewhere along the line, certain expectations and standards became deeply woven into our collective American culture. As adults, we know that different students excel at different things; that not all students learn or thrive in the same environments or under the same instruction; and we know that those 11th grade history exams aren’t going to spell certain doom for a child’s future. Not all teenagers (or younger kiddos) understand this, or feel like those explanations apply to them.
It’s not easy fighting a system of idealized tests and other standardized measures of “achievement” from your family’s kitchen table. All you can do is understand that these thoughts are out there, the consequent fears are real and varied, and kids are often struggling to remember that they’re enough, just as they are.
Talking about Test Anxiety
I’ve got one word for you, folks: normalize.
If your child comes to you with their fears and worries about a test or project or presentation, tell them that their feelings are O.K., and that it’s totally normal to feel that way! Tests, projects, and presentations are a big deal in the day-to-day lives of students – treat them that way.
I’ve rarely seen any good come from someone being told that something “isn’t a big deal,” or that they should “move on” from it – whether we’re talking about a book report on Jane Austen or hurt feelings after a fight with a friend. Everything matters when you’re growing up.
Sometimes, in conversations about test anxiety (or anything, really), the best thing you can do is to show your support, and just listen.
Reducing Test Anxiety
If only there was a one-size fits-all process for this! Unfortunately, I don’t have all of the answers for you, so you’ll need to lean a bit on your parents’ intuition.
After you’ve done your best to simply comfort your child when they’re particularly worried about a school task, check in with them for how you should move forward. Let them lead here.
Offering up “solutions” to reduce their anxiety – like more flash cards, a different mnemonic device, a few deep breaths – can sometimes increase their worries, rather than soothe them. Instead, try asking them if they’re interested in talking about their study process. Do your best to avoid problem-solving here. Rather, use this as an opportunity to learn more about how your kid learns.
Pay attention to the habits they’ve formed that they feel great about, and encourage them to do more of that. Listen closely to where their confidence falters, or their self-talk turns negative, and remind them that they’re a capable, bright person.
If your kid says, “Dad, I don’t know what else to try. Can you help me?” take their invitation to support them in a more tangible way! Just keep in mind that sometimes, too much advice can be overwhelming. So keep it short and sweet. And, if you don’t have any ideas, offer to help them look up something to try from the internet, or encourage them to reach out to their teachers (this would be my own personal go-to for all things math, but to each their own).
Let your child lead. Give them the help and support that they’re asking for, rather than what you think they need.
The Grey Area
Obviously, not all test anxiety stems from our society’s ideas about success and intelligence. For some students, these anxious or avoidant behaviors around testing may be amplified because of learning differences or memories of past “failures.”
You know your child best. If you feel you need to advocate for them – by reaching out to a teacher, or a school counselor, or an education specialist – follow your gut. If you’re already working with someone to help your child do better in school but notice that anxiety is still popping up around their studies, bring your newfound information about how they learn to a conversation with that person. Compare notes. Brainstorm ideas. Do what you feel you can to help make your child’s learning experience a little different.
The Bottom Line
Like anything else, test anxiety is a broad, complex, and highly individualized issue. I’m happy to share my thoughts on where some of these feelings come from, and one or two new ways for you to connect with your child, but always go to an expert when dealing with your concerns.
We all want our kids (and all kids) to feel confident in school, and to develop a true love for learning. Find your north star for these situations, and travel along that path that works best for your family.