(This article was originally published on September 19, 2017 but has been updated)

This week your students are more than likely taking their first quizzes and tests of the new school year. Given the desire to make a good first impression, you’re probably noticing a bit more stress than usual. Here’s what you need to know about test anxiety to help students do their best.

The Goal is Optimal Stress, Not No Stress

A little stress is a good thing. It motivates kids to study. The nervous energy during the test helps the mind actively recall what you know and work at a good pace so you can finish on time. So as the graph below shows, the goal isn’t no stress. The goal is optimal stress.

Performance Anxiety

Image credit: Abby Weinstein

Identify the Source of the Stress

Students can experience too much stress for lots of reasons. The goal is to understand your child’s source of stress and then help them manage it. Among the most common sources: being a perfectionist, peer pressure, realizing they aren’t prepared, and generalized anxiety. Let’s face it, parent expectations are also a major source of stress.

The problem is that if they get too close to the red zone, they won’t be able to do their best. Too much test anxiety will make it difficult to remember what they know, juggle steps on complex problems, and work at a steady pace to finish on time. If they don’t do as well, it is likely to cause even more stress for the next test.

On the positive side, if they hit the mark on that first test, it could provide the self-confidence for a semester of smooth sailing.

3 Ways to Minimize Test Anxiety

Tip 1: “Throw Away” Test Anxiety

This might sound a bit hokey, but there’s research to prove this strategy really works. Have them write down their biggest fears about the test on a piece of paper. Give them 10 minutes. Promise them you won’t read what they write. Then have them crumple up the paper and literally and metaphorically throw it away. It sounds too crazy and simple, but it works. If you’re a parent, you can do this the night before or in the morning before school. If you’re a teacher, have the whole class do it before the test.

An alternative approach is to have students write about their strengths. This calming exercise builds self-esteem and puts the test in perspective. Realistically, you can’t do this one too often. Save it for the BIG TEST. Maybe the ACT or SAT, or a very important exam.

Tip 2: Validate Feelings

Don’t tell them why they shouldn’t be nervous. That might have them internalize more anxiety. Instead, listen to their concerns. Let them know you understand. Then ask them what you can do to help make them less nervous. For some it’s just a hug. For others a small reward like a favorite snack. And others, a bit of help studying. Just ask!

Tip 3: Go to Bed

What your mom always told you about good a night sleep has so much scientific backing. When you sleep, you consolidate what you learned and will remember it better in the morning. When you get a good night sleep your attention and memory skills are sharper. Insufficient sleep has the same effects on brain efficiency as anxiety. So even if your anxiety is in the yellow zone, if you don’t get enough sleep it can move you over the tipping point.

And while it often feels impractical, teens should be getting nine hours of sleep a night.

Image Credit: Abby Weinstein


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