Jamie Copaken, LCSW, LSCSW
Wouldn’t it be great if our kids didn’t have to take any tests? Well, yes and no.
When we ace an important and difficult test, we can feel incredible pride and accomplishment, feel-good chemicals flood our system, and friends and family admire us. Gaining mastery over something helps us feel smart and be smart. The downside (in addition to not retaining knowledge long-term) is when the test creates anxiety and even panic. Wherever you stand on the debate over standardized testing, for now, our kids have to take them. So how do we help our kids overcome, not succumb to, anxiety?
We all get nervous before big events like tests. But listen carefully for cues that your child might be like the one in eight children – an astounding number – whose functioning is disrupted so significantly, they have a diagnosable Anxiety Disorder. When these kids grow up, they join the 40 million adults (18% of the general population) who suffer from anxiety disorders each year, making it the top mental health affliction in the US. To prevent our kids from becoming an anxiety statistic, here are three tips to help them gain success on testing – prepare, relax, and communicate.
Preparation might be the easiest one. Make sure your kids have good school attendance, so they are present to absorb the curriculum and take practice tests. Remember to instill good sleep, exercise, and nutrition. Studies show that some breakfast is better than none, and that oatmeal can be a superfood, keeping your child full and thus helping sustain focus and memory.
Relaxation techniques, including guided imagery and role playing, can help. Kids can learn to take a deep breath, hold it for three seconds, release, and repeat. They can learn to do a similar routine, tensing each muscle group moving up the body, including feet, legs, fists, shoulders, and face. Have kids “walk the walk,” visit the classroom where the test will be administered (if it’s different from their regular classrooms), sit in the desk, and take a practice test.
As for communication, there’s interpersonal (between people) and intrapersonal (what we say to ourselves). Teach kids that we all talk to ourselves inside our heads. That’s normal and necessary! Help them build positive self-talk, such as, “This will be stressful, but I know I can do it. I’ve done well before.” Catch and eliminate self-bullying thoughts like, “I can’t do this. I’m going to fail. I always mess up. Why even bother.” Challenge these negative cognitions (thoughts), asking, “Is that really true? Where did I learn that? Whose voice is telling me I’m going to fail?” Help kids reduce the pressure they feel about the test. No one can concentrate on a test if they feel their whole life depends on it.
To help kids communicate better interpersonally, parents and teachers can do a lot. First help them be assertive, verbalize, and “chunk” or break down their concerns into more manageable pieces. Each piece – worry about disappointing you, worry about being stupid, or worry about vomiting during the test – will lead you to a different set of solutions. Help your child normalize: teach them that everyone gets nervous and some stress helps us focus and put forth our best effort. At the same time, don’t invalidate or judge them, with statements like, “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine,” “you’re not worried,” or “that’s ridiculous.” Instead listen closely. Remember that listening isn’t agreeing; it’s just listening. As you work to reassure them, keep in mind they’ll only hear 15% of what you say; 35% is gleaned by how you say it, and 50% is interpreted from body language.
The final way to help kids combat anxiety with preparation, relaxation, and communication, is therapy. The vast majority of people who seek help get better, but only one third of those suffering from anxiety ever seek treatment. Many feel they won’t get better, they don’t deserve better, or they don’t tell anyone they’re suffering. Help our kids feel better and do well on these tests and the ultimate test: life. Contact a therapist, school counselor, or clergy for referrals and more information.
 Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA)
 National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
James (Jamie) Copaken, LCSW, is a psychotherapist, working in private practice with children, adults, couples, and families.
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