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7 Ways to Overcome Test Anxiety – Tips for Parents and Students

If you’re the parent of a student with test anxiety, you know how stressful it can be – for both of you. Even conscientious students can suffer from symptoms ranging from nervousness and trouble concentrating to headaches and an upset stomach brought on just by the thought of an upcoming exam. 

“We’ve seen normally good students who participate in classes, do all their assignments, and generally succeed in school who arrive at an exam or quiz and are overcome with test anxiety. For them, taking the test is the most difficult part of school,” says George Smalley, director of School Counseling at East Catholic High School. “These students can experience sweating, rapid heartbeat, and light headedness, which can even lead to panic attacks.”

Smalley says test anxiety can come from a variety of factors such as students having a negative mindset or comparing themselves to others. Others suffer from a fear of failure or pressure to perform. “Pressure can be a motivator or it can be devastating, especially to students who tie themselves to the results of one test, one day, or one action in their school years,” says Smalley.

For some students, it’s simply a matter of lack of preparation. These ones wait until the last day (or night) to study. Or it can be that they have a poor test history, which instills a negative mindset and influences future performance. “Competition tends to amplify these things, especially in a competitive school,” says Smalley. “The student feels they need to keep pace with others.”

Smalley offers these tips for parents to help their children overcome test anxiety:

  • Practicing relaxation techniques – “Relaxation exercises allow students to dissipate nervousness in the right way instead of having it fire up anxiety,” advises Smalley. A simple relaxation exercise would be to concentrate on your breathing, taking slow steady breaths. Then consciously relax each muscle, one at a time.
  • Keeping the blood sugar where it should be – Many students with test anxiety will be too nervous to eat the morning of an exam. “Even if they can eat a granola bar right before the test, that will help,” says Smalley.
  • Getting enough sleep – “Students with anxiety tend to go two ways – they either stay up too late and over study or they procrastinate and try to do it all at the last minute,” points out Smalley. “They don’t get the sleep their bodies need and, despite what your child tells you, they do need sleep. In fact, we now know that kids need more sleep in adolescence than any other time. If a student cuts into their sleep pattern, it’s going to affect the way their brain functions.”
  • Getting rid of negative thinking – “Students tend to assume the worst about exams. They need to challenge their negative thoughts like ‘I always fail’ and ‘I never do well in…’ They need to replace them with more constructive thoughts like ‘I’ve taken solid steps to succeed this time.’”
  • Asking for help in school - “Many schools have counseling centers with resources that offer tips and techniques to help students deal with these issues,” points out Smalley. “All they have to do is ask for help.” If they aren’t comfortable with that, Smalley advises students to reach out to teachers, a counselor, or friends. “Let someone know you’re having trouble managing your anxiety,” he says. “Find an adult in the building who you are comfortable talking to and share the burden with them. That’s why we’re here. The less isolated you feel, the more likely you are to overcome anxiety. I like to modify a quote from Dumbledore: ‘You will find that help will be given at East Catholic to those who ask for it.’ That goes for many schools, not just Hogwarts!”
  • Talking to friends who have similar feelings - Find out what your friends do to overcome test anxiety. “Sharing these issues with friends can help give an anxious student motivation and help them challenge their negative thinking about tests,” says Smalley.
  • Knowing when it’s time for additional help - If a student continues to be overwhelmed and anxious, Smalley suggests the student and their parent consider an appointment with a pediatrician. “A medical professional can help them understand if there’s more that can be done,” he says. “They may suggest counseling or setting up an accommodation plan with the school. Some students just need more time or alternative settings for test-taking.”

Smalley advises parents and students that test anxiety is something that they can overcome. “There are strategies and help that often make a difference,” he says. “Reach out and ask for help. There’s no reason for something like this to get in the way of a successful academic career.”

About East Catholic High School

East Catholic High School is a regional college-preparatory school of the Archdiocese of Hartford in Manchester, CT. Students come from more than 35 towns in the Greater Hartford area and eastern Connecticut. East Catholic is a place where students discover who they are meant to be. The school has been awarded the Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education and is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges and the state of Connecticut. East Catholic students are challenged to build their own strong moral character while pursuing academic excellence, responsible citizenship, active participation in community service, sportsmanship, and an appreciation for the fine arts. An overwhelming number of East Catholic students (97 percent) go on to attend four and two year colleges. For more information, please visit the ECHS website.