Students have worried about tests since the time of Socrates. But in our age of never-ending standardized tests, this anxiety spills over into daily life and is a concern for many families. Let’s look at signs of test-induced anxiety, what contributes to the problem, how parents can help reduce their child’s suffering, and when to seek outside assistance.
Recognizing Signs of Anxiety
Physical symptoms such as trouble sleeping, stomach-aches, headaches, or moodiness can be signs that your child is experiencing stress. Changes in behavior such as nail-biting, angry outbursts, withdrawal from friends and family, or making excuses to stay home from school can also indicate that there are worries that need to be addressed.
One problem with anxiety is that talking about it can give it power. It can remind the worrier about the cause and make it grow in their mind. Children fear that even talking about the problem will make it worse, so they hesitate to tell their parents what is bothering them.
On the other hand, kids may not even realize that their problems are school-related. They may just feel sick or angry or lonely.
When standardized testing time approaches, well-meaning teachers and principals start teaching test-taking skills. There is a practical reason for this, of course; they don’t want students to waste precious time learning how to bubble in the answers or reading unfamiliar instructions for the first time. They also emphasize practices such as healthy eating, limiting TV time, and getting plenty of sleep.
If too much emphasis is placed on doing something right, however, children may worry that there is something to be feared if they do it wrong. They internalize this worry and it grows with repeated teachings. Children prone to worry may feel helpless over things they cannot control, such as what meals are served at home, TV being on in the other room, or getting back late from siblings’ sports practices.
Helping Your Child Master Their Worries
Experts agree that telling a child to not worry can actually lead to increased worrying. It’s similar to the old “don’t think about elephants” routine: “Okay, what are you thinking about now?” “Elephants.”
Prevention is the key to addressing incapacitating stress in schoolchildren. Providing routines (study, exercise, chores, mealtimes, and bedtimes) is a smart way to manage family life anyway. When children in the family are inclined towards anxiety, or if their daily lives are potentially stressful, routines become more important and necessary.
Examine your goals and hopes for your children and their futures. Are you setting unrealistic standards for them? Have you placed them in elite academic or athletic or dance situations where excellence is demanded? Is it possible that you are trying to compensate for your own failings or lack of opportunity as a youth?
Consider reducing your expectations. Ask yourself if they changed schools or dropped activities or took a year off from competitive sports, what’s the worst that could happen? If your own pride enters into the answer, you are starting to acknowledge priorities and can begin to deal with them.
Meanwhile, there are books written for school-aged children that discuss worries and fears, and even books that gently tackle the subject of test-taking anxiety. Your school librarian can recommend books that other families have found useful.
Knowing When to Seek Professional Help
After taking preventative steps to help your child, if they are still incapacitated by stress, consult with a health care professional. A visit to your pediatrician can rule out any actual physical issues. They will have seen plenty of cases of anxiety in children and can refer you to the best mental health provider.
With attention and help, anxiety and stress can be alleviated so that your child can enjoy life and still keep up with schoolwork.