Testing limits

Try these strategies to ease your student’s anxiety over exams

Posted: April 19, 2017 at 1:54 a.m.

Test-taking time is a stressful time for students, but there are strategies for dealing with the anxiety.

MIAMI -- When it comes to test day, your children know what they know. The hard part is getting over the anxiety.

With all of the pressure to get into honors classes and top colleges for today's students -- not to mention a slew of state exams -- this can be a stressful time of year for families. A bad SAT or ACT score or bombing an advanced placement test can feel like the end of the world.

No matter how old your child is, students and experts weigh in on the best strategies to make sure they do well and get through the next two months without too much worry.


If your child is anxious before taking a test, help him or her visualize success, says psychologist Karen Cassiday, the board president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Ask your child to think about a past situation in which he or she has been successful or overcome difficult circumstances and prompt your children to focus on the things they are grateful for.

"What this does is it helps set a mindset that life is going well, there are good things out there, I can succeed," Cassiday says.

Maria Malvar, a teacher and trainer at the Miami-Dade school district's Parent Academy, which supports parental involvement in school, has similar recommendations. "Be positive and just give the atta-boy talk. 'You do your homework, you're going to be OK, everything has been taught,'" she says.


Any big changes in a child's routine around testing time could make him or her more anxious, Cassiday says.

"If you really want to help your kids act like this is a regular, normal thing, keep a regular, normal schedule," she says. "Don't make this high-stakes testing the event of the year."

Of course, making sure your child exercises, eats healthy food and gets a good night's sleep will also help with success, Cassiday says.

Parents also should make sure their child gets to school early on test day, Malvar says. Arriving late can add to the stress and result in the child having to take the exam at a later date.


For elementary and middle school students, Cassiday does not recommend any extra studying for standardized tests. "I wouldn't encourage someone to prepare until they actually have something to prepare for like national merit tests or pre-SATs," she says.

Older students prepping for exams should aim to study for 45-minute chunks with five- to 10-minute breaks in between, Cassiday says. "One of the things we know is that most people, no matter how bright they are, can't concentrate beyond 45 minutes," she says.

Benjamin Burstein, a senior at Miami Beach Senior High School, says his strategy for advanced placement tests -- which enable students to get college credit for advanced classes -- is to start early and go through two review books for each test. Burstein takes extensive notes while he reads the first review book and then goes through the second one more quickly.

"The most important tip is just start early," Burstein says. "If you're going to start preparing a week before, there are going to be issues. And then just do a lot of practice questions. It's a good way to make sure you don't get really stressed at the end."

Giovanna Garcia, a senior at John A. Ferguson Senior High School in Miami, says she relies on online flash cards to prepare for tests and creates a study calendar for herself, designating specific days for specific topics. "I would say the best way to feel less stressed is to know you're prepared and to have confidence in what you know so make sure you set yourself up for that," she says.


Instead of cramming right before the test, make your child laugh. Watch a funny movie together the night before or listen to funny stories on the way to school in the morning. That gives your child's brain a shot of the neurotransmitter dopamine, Cassiday says, which can improve test performance.

"If you're looking for how can you set a brain and mind to perform better, those things would be much better rather than doing extra studying," she says.


What if your child bombs the test?

"The first thing I would suggest parents do is check their own anxiety," Cassiday says. "Parents in particular can get very worried about wanting their children to do well, wanting them to have opportunities for getting into college or getting into special programs for high school. They need to remember this is their child's life, not theirs, and one of the most important things a human being can learn is how to recover from a mistake or not getting the things they want."

Renny Neyra, the director of Miami-Dade's Parent Academy, says the school district tries to make sure parents know there are alternatives if a child doesn't do well on the third-grade state reading exam, which students need to pass to move on to fourth grade.

Third-graders who don't pass the test can instead use scores from a reading assessment administered throughout the spring semester, one passage at a time, to qualify for fourth grade.

"There's a lot of fear regarding 'What happens if my child doesn't pass?'" Neyra says. "We clear all that up. We speak about the safeguards that are in place."


If your child is still anxious about taking tests after trying these strategies, that could be a sign of more serious anxieties. A child who continually asks his or her parents if they will do well on the test, or who can't seem to enjoy hobbies because of exam worries could have test anxiety, Cassiday says.

"When someone is choosing to study over having fun, something is going wrong in a preteen or a child or a teenager," she says.

Another sign, particularly for younger children, is having a meltdown or tantrum right before or after taking a test. In this case, parents might want to consider talking to a psychologist or a school counselor. There also are resources available on the Anxiety and Depression Association of America website at adaa.org.

In general, though, students and experts say the most important thing for getting through testing season is taking a deep breath and putting everything in perspective.

"Your life doesn't depend on whatever score you get on the test and when you think about it that way it's less daunting," Garcia says.

Family on 04/19/2017