Overcoming School Anxiety:
How to Help Your Child Deal With Separation,
Tests, Homework, Bullies, Math Phobia, and
Other Worries by Diane Peters Mayer, M.S.W.,
My Child Has Test Anxiety
Test anxiety is one of the most common causes
of school anxiety. Every student understands
that taking a test means she will be graded,
judged, and compared to her classmates, and
that performing badly will likely net her negative
consequences from her teacher and parents.
Michael, a first grader, has struggled with
arithmetic since he began school, and is barely
passing. Every time a math test is scheduled,
he tries to avoid studying for it and cries
and begs to stay home from school on test day.
Priscilla, a sixth grader, gets good grades
but suffers in silence before any test, even
on subjects she is getting an A in, with
symptoms of stomach pain, diarrhea, and vomiting.
Ray, in third grade, can't stop himself from
trembling before a spelling test, and although
he studies and knows the work at home, he often
can't remember how to spell the words during
the tests, and gets low grades.
Children who experience the kind of test anxiety
that creates distress or low test scores are
at a disadvantage when it comes to being successful
in the classroom. This chapter defines test
anxiety and explains its causes, symptoms, and
short- and long-term effects on children. Easy-to-learn
exercises and techniques to help children conquer
test anxiety are provided, along with parental
Kindergarten Is Not Playtime Anymore
Over the last twenty-five years, there has
been a shift in kindergarten curriculum from
what is commonly called child-centered, or play-based
programs, to skill-based or academic courses
of study centering on reading and math. Along
with this shift came a proliferation of testing
from kindergarten to twelfth grade, with an
increase in student stress and higher numbers
of children who experience test anxiety. The
No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 has made standardized
testing even more important for students, teachers,
and schools, because federal guidelines mandate
that schools reach certain educational standards
for every child within a specified time or be
Kindergarten once was
an incubator to the transition to first grade,
but today it is considered by many educators
to be the "new first
grade." Instead of story time, arts and
crafts, sing-alongs, snacks, naps, and learning
group dynamics, today's kindergartner may be
spending a good deal of time doing worksheets
to learn how to read and do math.
Testing may begin before a child enters kindergarten
with such standardized tests as the Kindergarten
Readiness Test (KRT). Students are assessed
on their proficiency in vocabulary and their
ability to identify letters, distinguish large
and small differences between objects, recognize
that language is made up of small sounds, comprehend
what they have read and then interpret its meaning,
and know numbers and understand math. Many children
flourish within these new standards, but others
feel like failures even before they walk through
the classroom door.
Each state sets it academic standards, and
school districts have leeway to do so too, so
some schools have taken the academic approach,
whereas others remain more child centered. If
your child is struggling with testing, you need
to find out your school's philosophy and take
the necessary action to help your child.
What Is Test Anxiety?
"Good morning, class," the teacher
said. "I have an announcement to make.
This Friday, you're going to have a math test." Those
words will make almost 100 percent of the students
groan and a good percentage of them nervous.
Being anxious about an upcoming test is normal
and even necessary because students need a little
adrenaline rush so they will be "up" for
the test. Normal amounts of anxiety can add
spark and vitality to the mental performance
needed to test well. If your child gets anxious
when a test is looming, but is able to study
hard and for the most part tests well, then
test anxiety is a nonissue. But if your child
is distraught over testing, exhibits negative
or acting-out behavioral changes, can't study,
or tests poorly even when he has studied, then
test anxiety is a problem.
Testing by its very nature is being judged
and evaluated in relationship to one's peers.
Students who test well generally feel smart
and are more confident than poor testers. Students
who dread tests often feel stupid and ashamed
about their anxiety and poor grades and often
suffer from low self-worth, not understanding
that low test scores may not be an indication
of true intelligence or ability. Test anxiety
disturbs the mind and body in the way that any
anxiety does, affecting children in how they
think, learn, and reason; how they feel about
school and themselves; and how they react to
school and learning. Scoring low on tests may
also cause negative responses from teachers
and other students.
Denise, a ten-year-old
fifth grader, can't sleep the night before
a test, lying awake worrying that she will "blank out" during
the test, won't remember a thing she studied,
and will probably fail. Denise is right, because
her brain freezes as soon as she looks at the
first question. Sometimes she gives up, puts
her name on the paper, and takes a zero. Denise
is smart and understands the work, but her anxiety
doesn't allow her to show that on tests.
Jamie, in second grade, can hardly sit still
during a test. His heart pounds, his hands and
legs shake, making him feel like he is going
to jump out of his skin. When Jamie can't control
his symptoms during a test, which is almost
all the time, he feigns a stomachache and tries
to be sent to the school nurse.
Shelly is in fourth grade.
The first time she was tested in kindergarten,
she looked at the paper and promptly vomited.
Since then, taking tests is a nightmare for
her. Shelly becomes irritable and has angry
outbursts days before a test. Even thinking
about the test makes her anxious, so she avoids
studying. Shelly feels stupid and "different" from
her classmates, and does not interact with them.
Katie always feels panicky before a test.
She can't sleep the night before, feels nauseated
and has diarrhea the morning of the test, and
worries that she will fail. She feels an adrenaline
rush when she gets the test paper, which scares
her into thinking she will faint. However, she
begins the test, and though she suffers, Katie
usually tests well.
Denise, Jamie, and Shelly are all smart, but
their test anxiety makes it almost impossible
for them to show what they know and get good
grades. Even their peer relationships are beginning
to suffer because they all feel a sense of shame
about their problems and shun many peer relationships.
Katie's test scores are good, but her test anxiety
creates high stress that she has trouble handling.
Test anxiety in any form negatively affects
the quality of a student's life.
Does My Child Have Test Anxiety?
Children with test anxiety can experience
any number of physical, mental, and emotional
symptoms, which can vary from mild to severe.
Some children act out their anxiety in overt
ways, whereas others suffer in silence. Physical
Heart palpitations, shortness of breath,
chest tightening/pain, or sore throat
Stomachache, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
Shaky limbs and trembling
Headache and body aches
Anxiety grips the mind and locks it down,
making it seem impossible to concentrate on
the test material or remember what was studied.
When that happens to your child, the emotional
and behavioral signs of anxiety appear. Does
your child have any of the following emotions
Feeling helplessness, hopelessness
Feeling shame and worthlessness, feels
like a failure
Whether your child openly advertises her distress
about testing or not, the following behaviors
may occur before, during, or after testing,
indicating test anxiety:
Is unable to concentrate or freezes up
during the test
Cries or gets sad or depressed
Complains about being sick
Has angry outbursts or tantrums
Gets exhausted, fatigued, or feels faint
Has trouble falling asleep the night
before a test or has insomnia
Children with test anxiety may rush through
the test to stop the anxiety or give up and
not even try to finish. They often withdraw
from academic and social activities and may
refuse to go to school. Some children with severe
cases of test anxiety feel so much distress
that they threaten to hurt themselves. Test
anxiety blocks the ability of your child to
achieve his academic potential, as well as undermines
his social development.