Anxiety, Wellbeing

Test and Exam Anxiety

By Mark Staum, LCSW

The months of October and November bring new weather patterns, new daylight schedules and new challenges for children. Exams, projects, and papers are back in full swing. Some children may experience some level of anxiety, in preparation for an exam or during an exam. Test Anxiety is a form of anxiety that can be anticipatory and/or performance related. In anticipatory test anxiety, a child may be anxious about the preparation necessary for an exam. When performance related, a child may experience anxiety during the exam itself.

Research shows that test anxiety is related strongly to time management and preparation. Even the most prepared/organized child may have some normal ‘jitters’ on the day of a big exam. However, generally speaking, children who prepare, plan ahead and studies for exams tend to feel more capable of handling any stressors that may arise on the day of the exam. By contrast, children who attempt to cram the night before tend to be more anxious. With that said, some children who study and know their material very well still get very anxious. Also, children with anticipatory exam anxiety may push off studying because doing so makes them think about their exams, which is unpleasant and anxiety-inducing, and as a result, they are less prepared, which begets even more anxiety.

To help children manage test and exam anxiety, teachers and parents should pay careful attention to children’s behaviors. Let’s look at three examples:

  1. A child tells you that before a Math exam, her body became ‘frozen’ and it felt like she was confused and disoriented.
  2. A child says that he reviewed the material for his History test an extra five times because he felt nervous that he really didn’t know the material well.
  3. A child mentions that before her most recent Science exam, she was so nervous that she could not study, and then during the exam, she felt very tired and had difficulty concentrating.

In all these cases, adults can assist children in navigating through these discomforts. In example #1, the child can take a practice test in advance of the exam, and then use breathing, relaxation, and light muscle exercises to relax the body directly prior to and during the exam. In example #2, we can help the child to recognize why it is that he is concerned about not doing well, and to be more accepting that sometimes we try our best and still don’t achieve what we want. In example #3, we can reinforce good study habits, especially when the child prepares for her test despite her anticipatory anxiety.

In all of these cases, feeling of anxiety can be worked through to build resilience and growth in your child. The above are sample strategies and professional assistance may be necessary. Typically, test and exam anxiety is highly treatable with evidence-based psychotherapy such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and children can see benefits within just four to six weeks.

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