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Test Stress

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."

Okay, are you now totally stressed? Don't be. There are lots of ways to help your kids conquer anxiety and do their best. Try these tips so your kids -- and you -- can rest easier about school.

Plan ahead. Have your child put all his exams on the family calendar so tests aren't last-minute crises.

Discuss pressure. Have frequent conversations, giving your kid details from your own life like, "I'm really worried about getting this proposal in by tomorrow. Do you get anxious like that about tests?" Or ask, "Are your friends nervous about the test?" Then you can follow up with, "What about you? How are you dealing with it?"

Discourage cramming. Kids shouldn't wait until the night before the test to try and pack their heads full of facts, says child psychiatrist Ron Zodkevitch, MD, a member of the Family Circle Health Advisory Board, because they'll probably forget most of the material anyway. Instead make sure your child spends some time each day with his course notes or text. It's a good idea to review carefully, but, says Dr. Zodkevitch, "your teen should be paying more attention to understanding the material than to memorizing."

Get assistance. Even before trouble hits, insist that your teen ask all his teachers, "How can I get extra help if I need it?" and then follow through (you may have to arrange before- or after-school transportation). "One of my daughters did well on math homework but struggled with tests," says Dr. Taylor. "The confidence she got from sessions with the teacher improved her test performance tremendously. She said she felt less nervous during exams."

Teach strategies. Remind your child always to read test directions carefully and to go over all of the questions before starting, so he'll know how long to spend on each. "Time pressure can add to anxiety," says Roberts. If your child has trouble finishing school exams, have him prepare by making up possible questions and answering them within a preset period. (Have him use a timer.)

Keep it real. Apprehensive teens often overestimate the consequences of not doing well on an exam. Remind your child (and yourself!) that all her goals, hopes, and dreams won't go down the tubes from one bad experience, says Dr. Zodkevitch. There's always another chance for success -- certain tests, like the SATs, can be taken multiple times, and most colleges will accept the best score. Some teachers will drop the lowest grade, or allow extra-credit work. Bottom line, you want your child to understand that her overall learning experience is more important than a single exam or grade.

Signs of Stress

If you notice your child has one or more of these symptoms, or she herself complains about any of them, she may be feeling overwhelmed and need extra support from you.

  • Physical problems like sweaty palms, stomachaches, and headaches
  • Trouble sleeping
  • More than usual irritability and moodiness
  • High rate of absenteeism, especially on test days

In worst-case situations, school performance may seriously drop and a child may feel sad, frustrated, and bad about himself. If this happens, or if your teen can't seem to get a grip on his test anxiety, take him to a cognitive-behavioral therapist, advises Amy L. Krain, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at the New York University Child Study Center. "This type of therapy is very effective in helping a child cope with physiological feelings of stress as well as anxious thoughts," she says.

The best defense against exam overload is for your teen to learn how to stay calm in general. If your child follows these practices, handling challenges without getting overwhelmed will eventually become automatic.

Progressive relaxation. Have your child lie flat. Tell her first to contract her facial muscles, hold for a count of 3, then relax them. Next, tell her to slowly squeeze then release every muscle group throughout the rest of her body, one area at a time -- back, arms, stomach, buttocks, thighs, calves, and feet. After a few run-throughs she should be able to do it on her own (before bed is a good time).

Slow breathing. When your son notices he's tensing up, he should deliberately inhale (count to 4) and exhale slowly, repeating 5 times, says Krain.

Good health habits. You've heard it before, but it's too important to ignore: Make sure your tween or teen gets enough sleep, eats right, and exercises regularly. Physical well-being makes kids more resilient overall and less vulnerable to stressful situations, advises Hinojosa.

Positive thinking. Overwhelmed kids are invariably having negative thoughts like, "This is too hard" or "There's no way I can write three essays." Suggest to your child that she replace that inner harangue with positive words (written, or said out loud or to herself) like, "I've done my best so I don't have to worry" or "No matter what, I tried." Similarly, if she's feeling intimidated by an upcoming event, she should visualize it going well.

Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the September 2007 issue of Family Circle magazine.