Dealing with Kids' Test Stress

Parenting expert Jan Faull, MEd, gives advice on helping children prepare for tests, and what to do when testing seems to be getting out of hand.

Q. In our district, my son's grade school is constantly administering skills tests -- and then follow-up progress tests, and then intermediate exams to ready kids for the really stresses my son out! Is there anything I can do to prevent the night-before meltdowns? And should I say something to his teacher or principal, or is this just the way it has to be?

A. Definitely talk to your son's teacher and principal. They need to know how all this testing affects your son.

Some children agonize through such stressful events more than others. For whatever reason, your son is more sensitive to the pressure relating to testing. He was likely born this way; it's a temperamental characteristic that he inherited.

A little stress administered in small doses keeps children's brains working optimally, but too much stress that isn't easily absorbed into a child's mental framework, works against optimal cognitive functioning.

The stress your son feels prior to test day probably keeps him from performing optimally. The question for you is what to do to keep him calm before test day not only so that he'll do his best on the test but also to save him and you the predictable "meltdown," as you describe it.

Prepping Him for Exams

Here are some things for you to do the afternoon and evening prior to test day.

Address his feelings and validate them. "You're worried about/ anxious because of/ fearful of the test. I'm not afraid because I know you have all the skills necessary to perform well but I understand that you're fearful." Validating feelings help them disappear.

Don't offer advice. Resist telling him to relax and do simply do the best he can. Although this is sound advice, when a person is stressed and emotional he can't hear and respond to these words. In fact, such advice makes a person hold onto their emotions all the more.

Keep from telling him to forget about the test. The test is on his mind. If he talks about it, restate whatever he said. By affirming his thoughts, you validate his feelings and open up his mind to think further. It's almost magical. Try it and see what happens.

If he says, "I hate those stupid tests."

You say, "You hate taking tests?"

Now just wait and see if he can clarify precisely why he hates taking the test. Be careful not to offer suggestions; rather, ask, "What can you do about it?"

If he says, "I'm not going to answer any of the questions."

You say, "You're not going to answer any of the questions? That's an interesting approach."

Now just wait and see if he can clarify precisely why he's not going to answer any of the questions. Likely he'll realize that this is really not what he's going to do. He's simply exploring this option and testing your reaction.

If he says, "I'm just going to stay home."

You say, "Well, let's think about that. What would happen if you didn't take the test?"

Now just wait and see if he can clarify why he's thinking about staying home. Some parents do keep their children home on testing days. You would need to explore this option if you sincerely believe that keeping him home would not jeopardize his academic career or if taking such tests truly compromises his mental and emotional health.

Your nonplussed, nonreactive response actually opens your child's mind up to think further.

Plan a relaxed evening. Include a healthful meal and some exercise. If playing a game or taking a bath usually relaxes your son, include both in the evening's activities. Discourage him from studying or cramming for the test unless he initiates doing so; even so, keep it to a minimum. He's likely prepared enough at school and from previous homework assignments.

By going to school rested, well fed, and relaxed, he'll likely perform better than if he's anxious and stressed. While you can't change his inclination to feel stressed under such circumstances, you can help him to learn to manage his stress by teaching him to calm himself in healthy ways which will serve him well now and in the future.

Jan Faull, MEd, is a veteran parent educator and the author of four parenting books, including Darn Good Advice -- Baby and Darn Good Advice -- Parenting. She writes a biweekly parenting advice column for this site and a weekly parenting advice column in the Seattle Times. Jan Faull is the mother of three grown children and lives in the Seattle area.

Originally published on, August 2006.

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.

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