In grade 3, nine-year-old Charlotte was being tested in math, science and health pretty regularly. But her mom, Ania Farmer, didn’t need a schedule to know when a quiz was on the horizon—she could tell by her daughter’s behaviour. “When she has a test coming up, she gets clingy and whiny, and has huge emotional outbursts. She starts to act much more child-ish,” says the mother of three.
Charlotte has learning disabilities and is anxious about school in general. But tests heighten her worry. “A test is where you show what you know, and it just points out to her that she struggles,” says Farmer.
A little bit of nervousness about tests is normal and nothing to worry about, says Melanie Badali, a psychologist and board member of the non-profit organization Anxiety BC. But the worry becomes a problem when it causes distress and starts getting in the way of test performance or leads to avoidance. Physical issues often indicate emotional distress—like if your kid complains of a tummy ache or a headache before a test. They might also refuse to go to school or start saying things like, “I’m dumb,” or “I’m going to fail the test.” Your child (or their teacher) might mention that during tests they get shaky hands, feel dizzy or hot, or can’t stop fidgeting.
6 ways to calm your anxious child
If your kid experiences excessive test stress, here are some tips and tricks to help them deal.
Validate their feelings
As parents, our first instincts are often to downplay the anxiety using phrases like, “Oh, come on, you’re not dumb,” or “It will be fine—you’ll see,” but dismissing the emotion will likely make it worse. “Then they have to escalate their emotions to convince you how bad it really is,” says Jennifer Kolari, a family therapist in Toronto.
Instead, validate their feelings, and let them know they’re normal. Kolari suggests saying something like, “Almost everybody feels anxious about tests, and that doesn’t mean you’re not going to do well.” Give your kid messages of confidence, such as, “You can do this. I believe in you.”
Then help them gain self-awareness by helping articulate their concerns. For example: “It seems like you’re worried that if you get a question wrong, people won’t think you’re smart anymore,” or “I think you’re afraid you might blank out on the test, even though you know how to do the math problems at home.”
Help them prepare
Even if your kid usually completes homework independently, help them study for the test. They’ll feel supported and less alone, and, what’s more, you can offer some learning and memorization strategies they might not have come up with on their own (for example, reading a word list every night is less effective than reading the words and then writing them out). Knowing how to study isn’t necessarily intuitive for all kids.
When you’re talking about the test, be sure to focus on effort rather than results. Kids this age are likely to equate test marks with intelligence, so explain to them that tests aren’t meant to show how smart you are, but rather to demonstrate what you know and what you still need to learn. “Tell them it doesn’t matter how they do, as long as they’re studying and trying hard,” says Badali.
Teach them how to self-regulate
Calming the brain helps it recall what it knows. On the day of the test, encourage your kid to calm down using whatever strategy works best for them, such as deep breathing, using a calming jar or playing with a fidget spinner. That said, Badali adds that it’s also important to make sure your kid knows that even if they cannot find calm, they can still carry on and write the test.
Support, but do not enable
Whatever you do, don’t let your kid skip the test. “Every time the anxiety has a win, it doubles down,” says Kolari. Ensure they take the test, but consider talking to the teacher about accommodations (like extra time or a quiet room to write in), if these would help reduce the stress.
Kolari says parents have an opportunity to teach kids good study skills and calming strategies in the early grades so test taking doesn’t get the better of them when they’re older. “It’s really quite alarming, how many older teenagers I’m seeing dropping out of university or quitting in the middle of grade 12 because of anxiety,” says Kolari. Tests are a fact of life for students, and knowing how to deal with them will serve your kid well in the years to come.
Did you know?
It may sound counterintuitive, but gifted children are especially prone to test anxiety. “They are protective of their intelligence,” says Jennifer Kolari, a family therapist in Toronto. “So any time it’s threatened, they would rather not attempt the test at all.”