By Walecia Konrad
Most kids get jitters before an exam. But these days, many kids are feeling outright panic.
One reason is the increase in standardized tests. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, all public school students must take annual exams in reading and math in grades three through eight, then again at least once in high school; starting with the 2007/08 school year, they'll also have to take science exams. These tests are a big deal, and kids who don't pass will face serious consequences. In some states, a child who fails any one will be held back-no matter how well he may have done in class. And a school may lose federal funding if too many students fail.
So how can you help your kid deal with the pressure? Below, some advice from Joseph Casbarro, Ph.D., a 30-year-veteran school administrator, psychologist, and author of Test Anxiety & What You Can Do About It.
Q: What are some signs that test anxiety is becoming a problem?
I'll never forget the time when my daughter was in fourth grade, facing her first standardized reading test. She woke up in the middle of the night, calling out, "Daddy, Daddy, I can't sleep. I'm worried about tomorrow's test." Kids with test anxiety may lose sleep, like my daughter did, obsess for days, or feel physical symptoms such as an upset stomach. Other kids will give up, figuring they aren't good test takers, so why bother studying.
Whatever symptoms your child shows, try not to add to the anxiety. If you're tense yourself, your child is a lot more likely to follow suit. You do need to talk to her, though, to help her understand what she's feeling. So ask questions instead of making statements that may sound critical. For example, rather than "You'd better study for the math test next week, I've heard that it's really hard," try "Do you know what's covered on the math test? Do you feel prepared?" You can also comfort her by acknowledging that you were scared about big tests too; it will reassure her that she's having a normal reaction.
Q: If the test isn't for months, is there anything parents can do to help their kids get ready?
Staying involved with your child's schoolwork all year will help him be well prepared by the time the test rolls around. And the more prepared he feels, the less anxious he'll get.
You can help a younger child by teaching him basic study skills and habits. Good teachers stress these throughout the school year, but you can reinforce those efforts by providing a quiet, well-lit place for your child to study and by figuring out what time of day is best for him to do his homework. In addition, it's a good idea to check your child's notes to make sure he is writing down key words and also keeping track of the things that the teacher would be likely to point out as most important. With assigned reading, make sure your child pays special attention to the summary sections of each chapter and masters the comprehension questions.
You can help a kid in middle school or higher by teaching him time management, a skill that will become increasingly critical as he gets involved with more after-school activities. This is also a good opportunity to work with your kid on improving his memory; teach him tricks using rhymes, acronyms, and other mnemonic devices. (Visit howtostudy.org for specifics.) Student study groups are quite popular in these grades now, but you need to determine if they are right for your child. Some kids find that peers can help them get through a tough assignment, but other kids get too distracted with their friends around.
Q: If the test is only a week or two away, what then?
You can review the right way to take standardized tests. For example:
- Look over the whole test before beginning. That way, your child can manage her time efficiently. If there's an essay at the end, she'll know that she can't spend too long on the multiple-choice questions.
- Skip tough questions and go back to them. But remind your child not to panic if the first several questions are stumpers. When that happens, it's easy to think the whole test is impossible. But these tests don't progress from easiest to hardest.
- Eliminate wrong answers. If your child is at a loss, she can increase her odds by ruling out answers that she knows are incorrect. Some kids have heard that if they're guessing, they should always pick a certain letter because most of the answers correspond to that letter. Don't let them fall for that old trick. These new tests aren't set up that way.
And here's a great tip I heard from a seventh grader. She told me, "I used to get nervous during multiple-choice exams because often the choices were so similar, I'd get mixed up. Now I cover up the answers while I read the question, figure out what it should be, then choose the answer that comes closest to mine."
Q: Some moms go so far as to give their kids prescription drugs. Does that make sense?
I want to be clear. There's a big difference between anxiety and real phobia. If a child is exhibiting true test-phobic behavior-avoiding the test at all costs, even making himself sick-it's probably only one manifestation of more severe problems. With professional help, there may be times when short-term medication is appropriate. But these situations are the extreme. To my mind, there is absolutely no need for medication for routine cases of test anxiety.
Q: What about meditation or deep relaxation?
These techniques are perfect for treating routine test anxiety. As testing increases, many schools have even added these activities to the standard curriculum.
One of the most effective relaxation techniques kids can use during the test is visualization. Ask your child to imagine herself in one of her favorite places. How does it look, feel, smell, and sound? A fourth grader in one of my schools said he used to imagine soup. "Soup?" I asked. "Yes, I close my eyes and imagine I'm in my grandmother's house and I can smell the soup cooking in her kitchen. That's when I relax." I've had kids end up in Disney World, Africa, the beach-anywhere they feel happy and calm. In fact, visualization is what helped my daughter after that fitful night. She still gets butterflies, but now she knows how to soothe herself. Have your child practice visualization at home when he gets frustrated during a homework assignment. He'll see that it works, and he'll be comfortable trying it during an exam.
I'm also a big fan of meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, and regular exercise. All these activities can help kids stay calm during the time leading up to the test and also will come in handy in other stressful periods throughout their lives. Ask your child's guidance counselor for more info and check out the Web sites studygs.net (search for test anxiety) and school familyeducation.com (search for relaxation techniques).