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Test Stress and Anxiety

Anxiety affects students in and out of the classroom and it’s more than just “day to day worries.” Children who experience anxiety aren’t doing it on purpose and are overwhelmed because of their feelings. Anxiety can influence a child’s performance in school as profoundly as ADHD or other learning disabilities. Students who feel anxious have a difficult time absorbing and processing new information or retrieving previously learned content.

Anxiety occurs when a student feels stressed over a specific situation and views it as threatening or beyond his or her control to manage. When this occurs, the nervous system reacts automatically, especially when it involves worry which can stem from “fight or flight” reflexes. Stress is the body’s way of responding to a demand and protecting itself to meet daily hassles, demands and challenges.

Teachers and parents often see an increase in anxiety for many students when they’re required to take exams. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) defines test anxiety as a type of performance anxiety. It is the nervous feeling that an individual may encounter before and/or during a test that interferes with how well they do on an exam. Test anxiety prevents kids from thinking clearly which makes it difficult for them to recall information. Schools can’t prevent testing from happening however, there are ways to help kids cope with test anxiety.

Three common triggers that cause test anxiety are: fear of failure, lack of preparation and poor testing history. The pressure to perform well on an exam can act as a motivator, or it can be extremely upsetting for a student who links their self-worth and esteem to a high grade on an exam. Stress overload causes a variety of symptoms that include memory problems, the inability to concentrate, anxious or racing thoughts, constant worry, depression, loneliness, isolation and various physical and behavioral symptoms.

Bad experiences with test-taking often leads to a negative mindset which may influence a student’s performance on future tests. It’s important to encourage a child to alter their personal perceptions about test taking. Teach them to engage in techniques to “calm down” their anxious brains; this will help them manage their anxiety symptoms.

Here are 9 strategies to help students manage test anxiety:

  1. Recognize stress. Many kids don’t recognize what “triggers” their anxiety until it is severe. This makes it harder for them to understand the warning signs and to calm down. Warning signs include thoughts, the way their body feels and looks, and what they say and do. When a child recognizes the warning signs of stress and anxiety, they can be proactive and manage it by engaging in coping strategies.

  2. Don’t procrastinate and be prepared. Parents and teachers need to watch for a child’s tendency to reduce anxiety through procrastination and avoidance. Encouraging good study habits will help to eliminate test anxiety. Studying at least a week before an exam and in smaller increments of time will be more beneficial than cramming the night before or pulling an “all-nighter.” Working through a practice test may also help to reduce anxiety.

  3. Think positive thoughts. The brain can’t produce anxious thoughts while it’s producing positive thoughts. Anxious, self-sabotaging ideas can be derailed when a student appropriately labels their thoughts. Optimism can help a student shift their feelings of fear, failure and frustration to hope and positivity. Stress-hardy kids tend to have a sense of humor, believe in a higher purpose and accept change as a part of life.

  4. Take deep breaths. When breathing is slowed down, the brain slows down. Kids who feel overwhelmed and struggle with anxiety can manage their emotions by engaging in breathing exercises. Consciously relaxing the body muscles can invigorate the body and increase focus while taking an exam.

  5. Practice positive self-talk. Teach kids to filter out irrational, negative and all-or-nothing mental clutter. This technique will help them manage anxiety and feel more in control and confident. Encourage a child to create a system of reasonable rewards and expectations because there are no benefits from negative, catastrophic thinking.

  6. Focus on calming strategies. It is important for kids to concentrate on the test, not on other students, and to avoid distractions while taking an exam.

  7. Create a strong support system: A network of supportive friends, family members and teachers can be an effective buffer against stress. School and life pressures don’t seem so overwhelming when a child can depend on others in his or her life.

  8. Stay healthy. Eating right, getting enough sleep, and regular exercise are important to staying healthy. Physical and emotional exhaustion will make it difficult for kids to handle stress and anxiety.

  9. Classroom accommodations: Meet with the school support staff to ensure that the proper accommodations are in place to help minimize test anxiety for a child.

Anxiety can be debilitating for many students. When they feel lonely and isolated their risk is greater of succumbing to stress. It is important to encourage kids to engage in a growth mindset. When this mindset occurs, a child is willing to face challenges, display resiliency and keep working despite setbacks. Overtime, this viewpoint helps them believe that their situation can improve, and they begin to understand that when they put in extra time and effort it leads to higher achievement. Those who have the perspective that things will never improve and that their abilities are unalterable have a fixed mindset; they will experience increased stress and anxiety.

It is critical that kids learn to recognize the symptoms of stress and implement ways to cope with anxiety. Both good and bad stress can either motivate a student or keep them from achieving their personal and academic goals. Recognizing test anxiety is the first step to managing it and creating a plan for success.

About the author

Vikki Carrel

Academic Language Therapist, Multi-book Author, National Speaker

Vikki empowers people! She is an Academic Language Therapist, multi-book author and a national speaker. Vikki grew up in Salt Lake City, met her husband at the University of Utah, and has owned several companies across the United States. In 2010, Vikki and her husband moved back to Utah from Doylestown, Pennsylvania and she founded Vikki Carrel & Company, a speaking and training organization. Read more about the Author

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