** A guest post by Colleen Wildenhaus **

Test anxiety is no longer associated with only high school finals and college entrance exams.  Sadly, it is being seen in children as young as kindergarten due to the abundance of standardized tests required in most schools.  Young children are being tested on their letter/sound fluency, reading fluency, number concepts, and more. School-age children are tested on math facts, reading proficiency, and other state-mandated tests. 

These tests are being administered not only for evaluation of school performance and content specific grades but as placement into certain classrooms based on ability levels. Once children enter upper elementary and middle school, the testing stakes are even higher, as the results often dictate class placements, which can affect college decision making. 

The impact of prioritizing test results leads to test anxiety in many children. Parents, teachers, and students, however, can implement effective ways in which to minimize the anxiety that arises with these tests.

What is Anxiety?

When anxiety strikes, it shuts down the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is used for thinking and decision making, while engaging the amygdala, the “fight or flight” response.  Given that testing requires rational thought, anxiety disables the process of thinking clearly, making it nearly impossible to focus on and complete the test.

Anxiety is prevalent in children with certain medical conditions, learning disabilities, attention issues, or as a stand-alone disability.  Children who are afraid to make mistakes, fear judgment by others, or have low self-esteem due to learning issues are especially susceptible to anxiety during testing.

Together, teachers and parents can create an environment where children, with or without anxiety, have success during times of testing.

  • Emphasize that the test is only one indicator of a child’s intellectual abilities.  By explaining why testing is required and how the results are used can ease some of the anxiety.  Make sure children of all ages understand that the test results have no lasting effect on their future.  It is imperative that children understand that a poor test score is not solely indicative of their abilities to learn or of their intelligence.

  • Highlight effort and growth over the actual score.  You want children to understand that “trying their best” is what matters when taking a test, not the grade that is received.  Similarly, you want children to see that, while their score may be low, the growth made from one test to the next is equally, if not more important, in the overall picture of their growth as a student.

  • Speak positively about the tests that are administered.  If parents and teachers complain about the tests, children pick up on this negative mindset.  You want children to see tests as just another aspect of school, rather than something to be worried about.  If parents and teachers become anxious about the tests and the results, children will feed off of this fear.

  • Never compare students or siblings with one another.  Displaying or celebrating high scores in front of other students bring shame to the students who, given their best effort, were not able to achieve the “desired” score.  There should not be a “wall of fame” for any type of test result, whether it be fact fluency, speed and accuracy in reading, or standardized test results. If you must celebrate and honour high achieving students, do it on an individual basis.  It is certainly worth celebrating, as a class or a family, the completion of testing and the time and effort it took to prepare for and take the test.

  • Create a favorable environment for testing.  Make sure testing takes place in the morning when children are fresh.  Allow for movement breaks before and after testing. Play calming music during the test. Parents, be sure that your child gets enough sleep and eats a filling breakfast on test days.  For more frequent tests (progress monitoring), like DIBLES or timed math facts, make sure that these are administered in a quiet environment away from the eyes of other students. Do your best to hide the timer from view, as many children become focused on the dwindling time rather than the task of completing the test.

  • Whenever possible, allow students an opportunity to re-learn the material that they answered incorrectly.  Once the material is practiced, offer the test again with half credit for the newly correct answers. This shows children that mastering the material is more important than the test or the grade.

For students, it is important that they understand the test that they are being asked to complete.

  • Whenever possible, provide sample tests and walk through them as a class.  For students doing individualized testing or progress monitoring, make sure that you thoroughly explain what you expect prior to the test.  Often students get frazzled in the beginning due to confusion, and it sets the tone for the rest of the test.

  • Practice test taking skills together and if necessary, teach students how to study.  For standardized tests, frequently complete questions similar to what they will see on a test.  For the end of unit tests offered in the classroom, provide students with a study sheet, explaining how to use the sheet to prepare for the test.  It is not fair to surprise children with questions they are not expecting. The goal of a test is to check for understanding of content and material taught.  On the study sheet, ask questions using the format that will be on the test. This goes for standardized testing as well. If students will be using technology for the test, make sure they have an opportunity to practice prior to the test.

  • Test-taking skills should be modelled by you as a teacher and parent.  Mock up a practice test and share your thoughts aloud as you go through the test.  Shed insight into your thought process as you work your way through a test. Be sure to make mistakes and model how to move on from a difficult question.

Similar to modelling, parents and teachers can make children aware of strategies to use while taking a test.

  • Explain to children that it is ok to skip a question.  If they see a question in which they are unsure of the correct answer,  circle it, go on with the test, then come back to this question at the end.  Explain that as they move through the test and answer questions in which they know the answer, their confidence will increase.  They may also find information throughout the test that helps them with the more challenging questions.

  • For multiple choice questions, explain to students that they should cross out options that are definitely not correct, allowing them to focus on fewer choices when deciding on the correct answer.

  • Rather than looking at the entire test, break it down into sections by either folding the paper in half or drawing a line to segment into smaller sections.

  • Let children know that if they truly do not know an answer, guess and move on.  It is ok to not know something. Spending a lot of time on one question seldom brings the correct answer to the mind.

Anxiety calming techniques should not be used for the first time during a test.  These calming techniques should be introduced to children in non-anxious situations, allowing them to reference them as needed during a test.  These suggestions work well for students who are fidgety and begin to lose focus as well as students who notice that their mind has gone blank.

  • Movement breaks are often allowed for all students.  This can be as simple as asking to use the bathroom or get a drink of water.  Taking a minute to walk around with a change of scenery can ease rising anxiety during test taking.

  • Controlled breathing can slow the heart rate and lead to more rational thought patterns.  Take a deep breath in through the nose, holding it for 5 seconds, then slowly releasing the breath through the mouth.  This breathing should be done several times to calm the anxiety.

  • Engaging the 5 senses is a simple and effective way to ease anxiety.  Children search the room using their senses. For example, they find 5 things they can see, 4 things they can hear, 3 things they can touch, 2 things they can smell, and 1 thing they can taste (when possible).

  • Similar to using the 5 senses calming technique, children can choose a colour and find as many items in the room of that colour.

  • Depending on the test being administered, students can use headphones to play calming music or an app like The Calm App.  State Testing will not allow any type of device to be used but classroom administered tests should allow for headphone use.

  • Once again, depending on the test being given, reminders can be placed on a student’s desk.  These reminders can encourage the child to use the test-taking skills taught and modelled by the teacher, breathing or calming techniques, or positive mindset reminders.

For students with extreme anxiety and/or focus issues, there are accommodations that can be provided through a 504 or IEP as needed.

  • The test can be orally presented via a computer or staff member for students who have dyslexia or struggle to comprehend their own reading.

  • Tests can be given in a small group environment outside of the classroom.

  • Extended time is an option, but seldom helps students who struggle with perfectionism or fear of making mistakes.  The extra time just gives them more time to stress about getting the text questions perfect. However, for slow readers or those who need frequent movement breaks, extended time can be useful.

Test taking is now a regular part of most student’s academic experience.  While the frequency and format of tests will vary based on grade and school, the pressure remains constant across the board.  It is important that children learn how to best handle themselves when faced with tests, as it will make their school experience more successful both emotionally and academical.

Colleen Wildenhaus is the mother of a 13-year-old girl suffering from severe anxiety and OCD.  Her blog Good Bye Anxiety, Hello Joy shares with readers the journey her family takes to enjoy the small moments each day, keeping the beast of anxiety from taking away the joy of life.  In addition to being a mother and writer, Colleen is a former elementary teacher who holds two Master’s Degrees in Education and a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology. She draws from her expertise as an educator to coach parents and teachers in ways to make school successful for children with anxiety.