A first-grade girl was experiencing chronic stomachaches, but her pediatrician couldn’t find anything wrong. Her mother was appropriately baffled. This otherwise happy-go-lucky young girl enjoyed playing outside, building fairy houses, and going on playdates. She liked her teacher and talked about her constantly.
Yet every Monday morning, the stomachaches hit right before it was time to leave for school. Her mother thought that perhaps the transition back from the weekend was the issue. Lots of kids have difficulty on Monday mornings, right?
As her daughter and I began to talk in my office about the “problem with Monday,” the truth came out: Monday was timed test day.
Every Monday morning, she had to take a timed math test, and every Monday morning, she felt a rush of anxiety that prevented her from answering the questions. Months later, just the thought of timed tests caused her to panic — and that triggered the stomachaches.
We think of test anxiety as something that crops up when teenagers take the SAT or some other important exam, but the truth is that even very young children can experience it. With the increase in tests and assessments at the elementary school level, more and more young children are experiencing symptoms of test anxiety.
There are a few steps you can take to help your child tackle this problem before it becomes overwhelming.
- Ask questions to clarify. Often, the process of saying their worries out loud helps young children work through their feelings. Understanding the thought patterns that trigger anxiety can help parents develop strategies to target specific concerns. Try asking these questions:
- How do you feel when you first see the test?
- What’s your biggest worry about taking a test?
- Do you feel worried when you think about a test or only when you see the test?
Questions like these help us to avoid assumptions about why kids feel anxious. For example, the girl I spoke with was not anxious about her skills — rather, she was afraid of falling behind her peers in the timed-test sticker chart.
- Teach test-taking basics. Young children have very little experience taking tests. Kids may feel empowered simply by talking through basic strategies, such as reading the directions, asking questions about the directions, looking for questions they know they can answer right away, and passing over tricky questions for a moment.
- Talk to the teacher. Some young children become overwhelmed by things like timed math computation tests and spelling tests because they look at the whole page instead of focusing on one answer at a time. If this is the case for your child, the classroom teacher might be able to implement some simple solutions such as using a piece of paper to cover the majority of the page so that your child only focuses on one line at a time.Other kids experience anxiety when they look around and see everyone working quickly. They become distracted by the noise of the pencils scratching on the papers. A quick fix for this is a privacy shield at the desk or being seated in a separate area at the back of the room.
- Encourage positive self-talk. Cognitive reframing is a great way to help young children cope with their anxious thoughts. We can teach kids to “boss back” anxious thoughts by replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. So when their brain signals that something is too hard, they can say, “You don’t worry me! I know how to do this!”
- Teach relaxation strategies. Visualization exercises are great for little kids because they tend to have active imaginations. Practice these when your child is calm. Ask him to close his eyes and identify a place he feels happy, confident, and relaxed. Encourage him to share details about the sights, sounds and scents in his calming place. As he shares, cue him to take deep breaths. Then on test day, remind your child to close his eyes and visualize his calming place when he feels anxious.
- Watch how Arthur and his friends practice relaxation techniques in advance of a school-wide test.
- Bolster confidence. The bottom line is that test anxiety can feel like a confidence killer. Instead of focusing on the actual tests being taken, help your child find their inner strength in other ways. For many children, increasing free play and outdoor play is a confidence booster. In the context of play, kids challenge themselves and work through their fears. This builds confidence that can positively impact your child across all areas of life.
Test anxiety can feel overwhelming for little kids, but if it’s addressed quickly, you’ll find that your child will likely build test confidence over time.