Shaky. Terrified. Ready to hurl her lunch. That’s how Erica Fulton describes her state when she gets set to write a school exam. The 18-year-old from Burnaby, B.C., recently graduated from Grade 12, but she’s still haunted by the test anxiety that dogged her throughout high school. “I’d study for days, and think I knew everything. And then as soon as I would start the test, I’d just freeze and go blank.”
It’s normal for students to be a little nervous before a school test or exam. In fact, it can be healthy, since it motivates them to keep it front-and-centre, and prepare accordingly. But too much anxiety has the opposite effect. In a test situation it can affect how kids recall information, make judgments and plan responses.
Luckily, you can help your teen manage test anxiety — with these “three Rs.”
Dr. Raymond Shred, a Nanaimo, B.C.-based psychologist, says that we tend to breathe erratically when anxious. “A method that will help people get control is focused breathing and relaxation techniques,” he says. In fact, Fulton found that concentrating on breathing right before and during the test seemed to calm her.
And don’t shortchange the shut-eye. Rhonda Day, an Edmonton high school teacher who also teaches Transcendental Meditation, is convinced fatigue is a big factor in the test anxiety she sees. “I don’t know one student who is properly rested,” she notes.
Young teenagers are becoming self-aware, says Shred. So they tend to over-analyze their failures. What they often don’t consider is that they wouldn’t be facing a brute of a Grade 10 math test if they hadn’t already proven smart enough to pass Grade 9. Parents can remind kids of their successes, and suggest positive thoughts (“I will try my best” or “I have studied and I can do this”) to replace negative ones (“I’m going to fail”).
That’s what Day’s daughter, Mariel, 17, tried before a particularly challenging French exam. “I told myself I had prepared well, had worked hard and knew my stuff,” she says. The result? She felt confident — and aced the test.
Students are less likely to feel anxiety if a setting is familiar. So giving them practice tests, even re-creating exam conditions by setting time limits, will prime them for the big day.
If your teen is so nervous he doesn’t want to go to school, or if his physical symptoms become unmanageable (nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, heart palpitations), it may be time to check in with a child psychologist or counsellor who can help him regain control. Get referrals from his school or from other parents. Shred recommends ensuring that any professionals you consult are listed with a recognized registry.
And don’t forget: Your teen’s best resource is you. Day says just checking in with your child can ease her anxiety. “When my daughter says she has a problem, we stop everything, we sit down and we let her download,” she says. “Your children have got to feel they’ve been heard.”
Lisa Bendall is a Toronto-based freelance writer and mom who sometimes suffers from housecleaning and cooking anxiety.
Have your teen try this deep-breathing technique — recommended by Oakville, Ont.-based Dr. David B. Posen, author of The Little Book of Stress Relief (Key Porter) — before his next big test.
1 Start by breathing out — to empty your lungs in preparation for the first deep breath.
2 Breathe in through your nose and out through your nose or mouth (opened slightly).
3 Breathe into your abdomen. Feel your stomach rise as you inhale and fall as you exhale.
4 Breathe slowly.
5 Focus on and observe your breathing. If you’re having trouble coordinating this, put one hand on your stomach and the other hand on your chest. As you breathe, focus on the abdominal hand moving, but the chest hand staying still.