Nerves can sometimes be a good thing. In the case of school, a little bit of anxiety can act as a motivator for children to study. However, too much anxiety can lead to poor performance.
Anxiety can affect children of any age, but, when it comes to school, it most often involves children between the ages of 8 and 18. Nicholas Westers, PsyD, ABPP, pediatric psychologist at Children's Health℠ and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern, shares tips to help your child perform at his or her best on test days.
1. Build a positive mindset
Dr. Westers defines anxiety as a natural reaction to a perceived threat, including the threat of failing or doing poorly on a test, that is universally experienced and adaptive. He explains that when kids feel anxious, the emotional side of their brain is fired up. This can lead to poor performance if left unchecked. However, when a student adopts a positive mindset and balances emotion with logic and reason, that anxiety can be channeled in a way that leads to confidence and success. Some anxiety is good and natural because it functions to get us to work hard and study. Remind your child of past successes to assure them that the situation will be okay. If you act positively, your child will follow your lead.
2. Adopt a mantra
One simple way to help your student shift from a negative to a confident mindset is to create positive affirmations that can be repeated leading up to the big test. For example, saying, "I am strong, I have studied, I have passed tests before" provides confidence heading into the exam. Practice with your child to make it a communal activity and to reduce the anxiety you, yourself, might feel. Also, remind your child to breathe. When the heart starts to race and the palms start to sweat, remind your child to take three deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth.
3. Set a successful routine
Level of anxiety can increase if children don't know what to expect. A chaotic environment can often lead to a chaotic headspace, so reducing disorder in the environment can set children at ease prior to test time. Work with children to set a routine that they can look to as a guide, including an established wake-up time, breakfast plan and last-minute test prep. In addition, review the routine the night before the test. By building structure around the situation, you are helping to reduce the chaos your child feels heading into a test.
Having a long-term positive mindset and knowing one's own strengths is a key driver of building good self-esteem. Help children recognize the things they are good at, whether that happens to be school, music, sports or friendship, and use those examples when speaking to their strengths. In addition, thinking positively can help build resilience. Continue to find small ways to help children be successful and reward the effort they put in to do so.
4. Practice imagining success
If your child truly struggles with test anxiety, you can assist your child by sitting down with them for 5 minutes per day on the days leading up to the test and have your child imagine doing well on the test while feeling calm or slightly anxious but adequately confident. Imagining success is a visualization and mindfulness practice that can help kids cope in the face of anxiety. Simply encourage your child to close their eyes and think about answering test questions correctly and staying calm when they may not know the answer.
"Part of success is not simply answering questions correctly but knowing how to bounce back when we don't know the answer and moving calmly to the next question," Dr. Westers says. "Of course, kids still need to study and do the work, and if they do, this imagery exercise will likely be especially powerful."
Children's Health psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists can help children and teens manage stress and anxiety when it begins to interfere with their daily life. Learn more about programs we offer to support mental, emotional and behavioral health.