Math quizzes. Federal- and state-mandated exams. Midterms and finals. PSATs, SATs, and ACTs. Tweens and teens are dealing with more tests than ever, and feeling pressured to do well on all of them. The result? Kids too anxious to perform -- or learn -- as well as they are able to. According to a recent study, 61 percent of high school students are troubled by exam stress and nearly half of tweens are affected. The study also found that students who felt overwhelmed scored 15 points lower in math and 14 points lower in English language arts than their calmer peers.
And it appears that more and more kids are suffering. "We used to associate high levels of test anxiety with students who were perfectionists or worriers," says Barbara Hinojosa, PhD, a psychologist who works in the Lake Worth Independent School District in Texas. "But now I've observed and heard from colleagues that most students are feeling pressured."
The stress is coming from all sides, starting with the kids themselves. "Adolescents are often overly sensitive and self-critical," says psychiatrist Janet Taylor, MD, a member of Family Circle's Health Advisory Board. "Adding school pressure to the mix can feel overwhelming."
Then there's competition among kids, which often contributes to the problem, says Rollin McCraty, PhD, director of research for HeartMath, a nonprofit research organization. And schools also play a role. "Teachers' jobs depend on test scores," says McCraty, "and some teachers are focusing too much on prepping kids for specific exams instead of building gradual, logical mastery of the subject."
The anxiety may also come from the home environment. "Parents want their kids to go on to the best high school or college, and children don't want to disappoint," says Richard Roberts, senior research scientist at Educational Testing Service (ETS) in Princeton, New Jersey. "Parents also lead their kids to believe that their entire future is riding on one test." At the other extreme are parents who don't know what kids are facing -- 41 percent of parents are unaware of how many exams their children have, according to a recent study by the American Educational Research Association. Without the facts, they may not offer enough support and guidance.
This isn't to say that all anxiety is bad. A little pressure actually motivates kids to get ready for the challenge. "But if a child is so stressed out that he experiences negative emotions," says Hinojosa, "he won't be able to focus. It's important that you help your kids find the right levels, so that they're nervous enough to study, but not so anxious they can't concentrate."