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How Do I Help a Child Who Worries About Tests?

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist

Question:

My daughter is smart, outgoing and funny, but can be a bit serious at times. Although she is doing well in school, above grade level in reading, language arts and math, she gets nervous and anxious at the mention of the word "test."

Even though she does well on her school work and homework, she panics on her tests and makes silly mistakes. She doesn't read the directions correctly, she rushes to finish the test so she is not the last one to finish, or she can't think straight because she's too nervous so she gets wrong answers to questions she already knows. Can you give us some ideas as to what we, as parents, and she can do to help with this situation?

Answer:

Children who become anxious at the thought of a test often feel convinced they are going to fail. Test anxiety occurs for many reasons, such as lack of preparation, fear of disappointing the teacher or parents, or low self-confidence. Fortunately, there are lots of things parents can do to help.

Enlist the help of your daughter's teacher. Ask about test-taking skills taught in the classroom. Once you know what she has been taught at school, you can review the same strategies with your daughter at home, reinforcing the learning.

Help your child feel prepared before tests. At least a week before a test, help your daughter study a little every day, using different methods. These can include making flash cards, writing and rewriting key words, making up a "mock" test, or even having her teach you the material. Teach her the following, calling it the A-B-C-D Rules for Test Taking:

  • Always read the directions twice.
  • Breathe in and out 5 times to relax.
  • Carefully read the questions and answer the easy ones first.
  • Don't hand in the test until you have double-checked your work.

On the day of the test, make sure she is well-rested and has eaten a healthy breakfast. Make sure she has sharpened pencils or other materials she will need.

After the test, praise your daughter for her hard work and help her celebrate with a special activity, such as taking a walk or playing a game together. Don't put too much emphasis on her grade and don't feed in to her anxiety if she gets upset. Instead, when the test comes home, approach it nonchalantly, reviewing errors and talking about ways to improve next time.


Dr. Stacie Bunning is a licensed clinical psychologist in the St. Louis area. She has worked with children, adolescents, and their families in a variety of clinical settings for 20 years. Bunning also teaches courses in child psychology, adolescent psychology, and human development at Maryville University in St. Louis.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

02/16/2010:
"What are the signs of my 5 and a half year and my 7 year old having low self esteem. I have had this my whole life which lead to actions that were less than moral. I fear this for my children. Help me understand how to give them self esteem. Nancy"
02/6/2008:
"Help with reading. My daughter is not donig well with her reading comprehension. The scholl has a very good program with accelerated readers points. Either she makes A or C. Last 9 weeks exam the test was almost like SAT. She came home and said either she will make a F or A. The day before aschool reopening she said mommy iam afrauid iam going to get Fin reading exam. Iassured her she will be o.k. Sure she did get f and she felt bad letting me know when i picked her up. After few days she watched the commercial for Sylvan and she expressed interest. She was already in kumon from last 3 years. Except reading she gets good grades in all other subjects. 3 weeks afdter i forgot to let her know that she had reading test on that day. But she was already prepared not knowing it. she made an A. Could it be the test stress. I MADE HER BRING BOOKS FOR LONG WEEKEND AND SHE PREPARED FOR THE TEST. Imisinterpretd the test was on thursday but it was on Wednesday which she did alright. "
08/20/2007:
" hey, this is a great method. I love the ideas, but what do you do if there is time limit and you completely freak out and the test is the day after you've got your work? please reply. Thanks for the ideas, i'll try it out. I am in great need of advice though, I have to do test that invole time limit and I dont think I can finish and pass with flying colours...sigh*. Please help thanks! "
04/17/2007:
"My daughter is enrolled in Kumon Class. A japanese method of reinforcement and timing engineered for both Math and Reading. Kumon is to be done daily and timed each and every time. My daughter went from 20 minutes to 4 minutes on 125 math problems. I dont think I can even do that. The problem has been reinforced that it is basically a reflex for the children to answer. Boy the confidence and the daily timing has give this 8 year old girl nerves of steel. Kumon Children are test taking soldiers!!!!"
04/17/2007:
"My daughter is enrolled in Kumon Class. A japanese method of reinforcement and timing engineered for both Math and Reading. Kumon is to be done daily and timed each and every time. My daughter went from 20 minutes to 4 minutes on 125 math problems. I dont think I can even do that. The problem has been reinforced that it is basically a reflex for the children to answer. Boy the confidence and the daily timing has give this 8 year old girl nerves of steel. Kumon Children are test taking soldiers!!!!"
04/16/2007:
"I think this is a great question, as my daughter also has some anxiety with tests. She is generally an A student, but has a hard time and rushes in test taking (especially in math) because possibly she doesn't want to feel like she will be the last one to finish. I asked her teacher if I could send in a little check list on a 3X5 card. On that card, I wrote in bright happy colors: read twice AND UNDERLINE your directions. After answering the question, check, double check ans tripple check your work. I also put at the bottom that we love her very much, and that it is not a race. So take a nice deep breath and relax. Your best is all you can give! PS. The underlining REALLY helped her read ALL of the directions and to not assume what was asked of her!"
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