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Oregon Family Magazine

Helping Your Student with Test Anxiety

04/13/2015 20:30 ● By Sandy Kauten
It’s easy to forget the stomach-churning stress of test-taking when it’s been years since you’ve taken one yourself.  But how many of us – even decades later – still have nightmares about taking a test we haven’t studied for?  Or showing up at the wrong place, at the wrong time, or worse – stark naked?!

These memories nest themselves deeply in our brain, and all point to a few good lessons about how to help your child avoid the nightmares and prepare for their big tests: the SATs, ACTs, APs or finals.

  1. Normalize the nervousness. Make use of your memories and share your stories. It is helpful for your child to know that it’s normal to feel jittery.
  2. Control the controllable. The test content won’t be entirely predictable, but other components are. Reserve energy for the test by nailing down the logistics like place, time and any forms your student will need.
  3. Feed the brain. It’s so basic, but a healthy breakfast will settle the stomach and help with focus and endurance.
  4. Imagine success. Help your children get past their worries about the minutes during the test, and focus on how good it will feel to be done – and to have given it their all.
  5. Focus on effort. Erase the preoccupation with the numeric score or grade, and replace it with an emphasis on studying hard before the test and doing your best work.
  6. Manage irrational fears. Thoughts of “I always do poorly on tests” or “I’m not good at multiple choice tests” are common but irrational. Find an example of a time when this was not true, and focus on it. Concentrate on how much your child has learned, rather than the test itself.
  7. Assume the best. Help your children assume the best about the situation and their performance. Focus on positive outcomes, not potential mistakes.

Your students will do best if they feel prepared. Start early and ask for help. There are many resources to help with preparation; they range from rote memorization to prep classes, practice tests and visualization. Some strategies will work better than others for your student; you will have a solid sense of this based on the years you’ve spent together. Here are a few that will help any student:

Outline a plan of attack. Work with your student and let him or her chart a plan. Make sure he or she owns the approach so it’s enforceable. Use a calendar for planning, and be sure to leave the last couple of days before the test clear for self-care and rest. Cramming for the test will create anxiety.

Peer pressure and your child’s internal expectations can skew all perspective of the test’s true importance. You can help restore equilibrium by reminding your test taker that the score is only one part of a larger picture of academic or scholastic success.

Celebrate after the test is completed. It doesn't matter how well the child performed; they saw the process through from start to finish and that’s important. Plan the celebration in advance of the test so that you’re ready for action – and for distraction if your student is being hard on him or herself. Get input from your son or daughter about the celebration. Your idea of fun may not be as motivating as something your student brainstorms.

Even with the best preparation and fullest support, your student is likely to be emotional. The best thing you can do to appease the stress is to remain calm and understand the pressure of formalized assessments. Remember what it felt like when you were seated at the desk, number two pencil in hand… And then send your student off with a hug, a smile, and the reminder that doing the best job possible is all you expect.

 -- This guidance was gathered by the professional counseling staff of mental health professionals at Eugene Therapy and its Corvallis office, Oregon Counseling. The team provides the mental health support many of us need at one time or another. Specialties include teen and family support, parenting, anxiety and depression management, eating disorders, couples counseling, trauma coping and recovery, grief and loss, substance abuse and other challenges.