From the February 2015 issue

Coping with Test Anxiety

When test time rolls around, does your child bring sweats and shakes along with a No. 2 pencil? If the answer is yes, she might be suffering from test anxiety, and there are a few ways that you can help her cope.

But what works – and what could do more harm than good when it comes to early elementary kids and those test-taking terrors? Social worker Jennifer Hayes, who works with young kids at Resilient Life Therapy in Bingham Farms, has insight.

First, it’s key to know there are many reasons kids might have problems relaxing while testing. And many are totally beyond their control. Hayes explains some kids could be more anxious by nature and might have a harder time managing the pressures of daily life, while others could be verbal rather than visual learners.

She also believes that the emphasis on timed testing, or events happening in a child’s life (like divorce or death), could impact their stress levels during test time.

“I talk to people about the limited amount of bandwidth we have,” Hayes says – that’s the energy and time we have to focus on a task. “When our bandwidth gets taken up, we aren’t as resilient at something that would have otherwise been easy to manage.”

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Anxiety isn’t a problem that is going to go away on its own, either.
“The earlier you can help someone to manage anxiety the better – because it becomes more intense as time goes on, ” she says.

So what are the best ways you as a parent can help? Here are Hayes’ tips.

Listen to your child. “Don’t dismiss what they are feeling,” Hayes says. “Listen to them, and then look at what the child is afraid of and help them come up with a different way to think about it.”

Help problem-solve. “But,” Hayes adds, “don’t fix it for them. Kids are amazing and can often come up with their own ideas on how to solve their problems.” It may be a new way of preparing, like flashcards or having a quiet study spot. Ask kids questions. Also, reinforce kids’ efforts, adds the NYU Child Study Center on its website, vs. getting a specific grade. That can be a good motivator too. Just be careful to avoid excessive praise.

Give a reality check. Ease your kid out of that funk by talking and explaining things through. “Just because they failed one test doesn’t mean that they will fail them all,” Hayes says. Counter negative comments with contradictory questions, aboutourkids.org adds. For example: “Do you really fail every test?”

Lead by example. “Look at your own anxiety and messages that you are sending to your kids,” explains Hayes. After all, kids pick up on everything.

Face the problem, with caution. When it comes to any form of anxiety, “Be cautious about letting their kids avoid what makes them anxious,” Hayes says. “Avoiding these things could make the anxiety worse.” Parents can also take these opportunities to teach simple anxiety management with deep-breathing exercises. Basics like a full night’s sleep and healthy breakfast can make positive impact too.

Seek help. Apart from talking to your child, if she’s really struggling with her anxiety, Hayes recommends parents seek help from a therapist. These professionals can teach kids cognitive skills along with self-regulation to help “desensitize themselves to the anxiety.”

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