No matter your feelings about it, testing is a part of the American education system. Our children have to complete many tests throughout their academic career, some as small as a weekly quiz that contributes to a quarterly grade and others as large as the SAT or ACT.
Unfortunately for some of our kids, these tests create a great deal of anxiety. And what we know (Yerkes-Dodson law if you’re interested!) is that there is a sweet spot for stress related to performance.
Too little stress and we perform poorly. Too much stress and we perform poorly. But just the right amount of stress allows us to show off our skills fully, performing close to our highest level. Unfortunately, test anxiety can throw us into the too much stress category.
Taking tests can be extremely stressful. While some find too little stress to be an issue, I mostly see kids with too much stress as they take exams in the classroom. Some kids report sweaty palms, shortness of breath, flushing, upset stomach, and their mind going blank. Others have symptoms the morning of or even a few days before the test which can include agitation, difficulty focusing, body concerns like headache or stomachache, or refusal to go to school. Several children have confessed to making up an illness the day of a big test to avoid the anxiety. Some teens even have mini or full panic attacks when faced with an exam. None of these issues help our kids do well on the tests they are taking.
Anxiety can be a vicious cycle. When a child has anxiety about something, they often try to avoid that feared item, situation, or person. However, the avoidance of this does not help the anxiety. Instead the feeling gets reinforced. Let’s be clear: I am NOT advocating that you force your child into ALL feared situations immediately. It takes time to build skills and confidence to confront the feared “stimulus” (i.e. whatever is freaking your child out). At the end of this blog, we will discuss some ways to help your child overcome the anxiety in a supportive and encouraging way. If the anxiety is too high or too intense, it may be helpful to talk with a professional to develop a more in depth plan.
So let’s talk about what stress does to the brain. We know that the prefrontal cortex, the front part of our brain covered by the brim of a baseball cap, is critical in logical and rational thinking. This is a part that helps us organize, reason, and logically problem solve. What a great part of our brain!
Here’s the tricky part: when we are extremely stressed, our front part starts to go off line. Dan Siegel calls this “flipping our lid.” The important front part is less accessible when we are overly stressed. Instead we are living in our back brain, our fight, flight, or freeze brain that is not great for math problems or essay writing.
This back part of our brain is important too, when we’re running from a tiger or fending off an attack. So when a test creates so much stress that we start using our back brain, we’re in a tough position.
What happens when we are in our back brain? Stress hormones like cortisol start flowing through our bodies. Our adrenal glands dump adrenaline into the blood stream, pumping us up for a fight for our lives. Which is great. When we are fighting a bear. But when we are trying to access knowledge and engage in logical problem solving, our back brain is not very helpful. And where are we when we are extremely anxious about taking a test? You guessed it, the back part.
Why brain? Why do you prepare us for life or death fights when really we are just putting pencil to paper? While we like to think that the brain adapts quickly, in the big evolutionary picture it does not. Yes, we are driving cars and using technology and of course our brains have adapted to this. But when it comes to stress and anxiety, the older part of our brain, the back part, the same part that we share with lizards, we have not adapted with the same speed. Like we discussed before, a little bit of stress is helpful. But some of our kids have much higher anxiety levels around school which means back brain city.
So what can we do to help?
Look at study skills. Some of our kids are great studiers. They just get it. However, studying is a skill too and some children really struggle in this area. Re-copying notes and rereading the book is not always the best strategy. Support your child in figuring out how to be tactical about studying and how to integrate knowledge rather than just remembering things by wrote. Remind them that the goal is school is to increase their knowledge base, not just remember something for a week which you will forget the next day.
Mindfulness. I know it’s a big buzz word right now but finding ways to calm the body and the mind is extremely important in this arena. This can include physical ways to calm the body (bouncing, rocking, squishing something in your hand, focusing on deepening the breathing) and mental ways (counting the breaths, repeating a helpful saying, reminding one’s self about the growth mindset, putting things into perspective.) This can also include visualizing the testing environment and preparing in that way. Developing these skills can be helpful for life!
Focusing on a growth mindset. The growth mindset is big right now and I am a huge fan! If we can reframe our perspective from one of shame about how we did to how this can guide us for the future, it may help us decrease our anxiety
Evaluate if additional testing is needed. Explore if your child has an undiagnosed learning disability or difficulty focusing. I have had several occasions when a child has ADHD and the anxiety stems from the accurate worry that they cannot focus, are getting distracted in the classroom, or have difficulties with the material. If you have concerns about learning disabilities or other mental health concerns, you can contact your school district for and IEP or get tested with a private psychologist. For ADHD testing, school districts may defer to your mental health provider for further evaluation.
Find other activities to support self esteem. We know that some of a child’s self esteem likely hinges on their academic performance. School is a big part of their life so it makes sense that most of our children are impacted by their performance. Just like most of us want positive job reviews, most of our kids want to do well in school. However, if this is just not an area of strength for them, it may be helpful to find and nurture an area that is. This could be physical, such as sports, martial arts, or dance, or creative, such as writing, art, or theater, or anything under the sun. Feeling confident and competent in an area can help us feel better about ourselves.
Review how much stake you put into grades. Sometimes we put more pressure on our children than we expect. However, sometimes our kids are putting the pressure on themselves. Try to help your child understand that this test is looking at how much you know in this moment only. Help them realize that we can use this as a guidepost of areas of strength as well as areas for growth.
Call a professional. If your child is struggling intensely and you feel you might be out of your depth, it may be time to call a professional. A psychologist or therapist who specializes in test anxiety can help your child learn specific skills and help them manage the negative thoughts that can come with intense anxiety. This allows for a more tailored approach for your unique child.
As I mentioned before, our education system often uses tests as a means of evaluating performance. While other modes of evaluation may be present, it benefits our kids to help them decrease their test anxiety so they can show us their best and continue to succeed in our current education system. We know that life is not based on tests in school, but doing well sure can help us feel more confident and achieve goals that help us move forward in life!
Dr. Heather Chamberlain, psychologist in Marin, has extensive experience with children of all ages. She often supports children and teens who are struggling with anxiety and helps them learn how to manage their stress. Dr. Chamberlain offers a free 20 minute consultation if you are concerned about your child and possible test anxiety. She also offers testing for ADHD, learning disabilities, and psychological disorders. You can reach her at 415-524-7882.