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How Can I Ease My Child's Test Anxiety?

By Debra Collins, Family therapist

Question:

My first-grader has terrible test anxiety. Every Friday she has a spelling test and does not seem to get upset over it, but if I or the teacher tells her she is having a test any other day she gets very upset.

She will worry until the day of the test and then cry until we leave for school. I try to review the work with her to show her that she knows it. But she just gets upset and won't listen. I do not tell her I expect perfect scores. I always tell her I expect her to do her best. Is this normal in first grade? How can I help alleviate her anxiety?

Answer:

Here's the good news. Your daughter figured out how to take a spelling test every Friday and not get upset. That's a positive start and suggests that she doesn't necessarily have "terrible test anxiety." She may just need help in discovering how she was able to do that in order to generalize these methods to other subjects and situations.

It may be that she likes predictability. It gives her a sense of control. However, exploring other possible worries would also be helpful. For example, it might be the subject matter that makes her anxious, not the test day.

It is hard for any of us to get talked out of our feelings. But learning coping strategies for our worries can eliminate some stress and help us perform better. You can try reading storybooks with characters who worry to help her see how others cope. It doesn't have to be the same issue to be affective.

You can be curious and positive about her ability to take spelling tests, and marvel about how she was able to accomplish this. This can help her identify her strengths and ability to solve problems. Then guide her to using these same skills in a new situation. You can ask the teacher how she helps children prepare for tests, so that you replicate this at home. She may be confused about studying, the testing process and what it means to "do her best." Some teachers do not teach testing skills in first grade and others do. Knowing what the teacher's expectations are around testing would be helpful in guiding your own expectations.

If your child's anxiety escalates to school refusal, or additional fears, you should seek professional guidance from the school counselor or a child therapist for further assessment.


Debra Collins is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has worked in both primary and middle schools as a school counselor. She gives workshops to teachers and students and offers parenting classes in the San Francisco Bay Area. To learn more, visit her website.

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

04/23/2008:
"My daughter has ADD but I don't prefer to go the medicated route because the medications don't seem to help her. However, when she takes a test she goes blank. The information that she had been studying for in the previous weeks goes out the window when the test gets put on her desk. I experienced this throughout my school years and struggled through school. How can I help her? She doesn't show any signs of interest in school and I try to help her in every way I know to help. This has been a struggle for me since the beginning of her first year in school. "
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