Managing Standardized Test Stress


By Jennifer A. Powell-Lunder, Psy.D. for

The start of spring brings with it many things to which to look forward. The warmer weather means more time for outside activities and fun in the sun. Spring also signifies however, the season of standardized testing for kids of all ages. Whether your child will soon take state achievement tests such as the ELA for elementary kids in New York state, or national exams such as the ACT and/or SAT for college bound high schoolers, the associated stress can be intense and at times overwhelming. Look, it’s a plain fact that some people are better test takers than others. Test anxiety however, can affect even the most confident and calmest of kids. It certainly affects their parents.


What follows are a few quick tips to help your kids keep calm, cool, and collected before, during and after they face a standardized exam.

1. Don’t let him see you sweat. Your kids look to you to model appropriate behaviors. Anxiety can beget anxiety. If you present as a nervous Nelly, the frenetic energy you create can cause him unwanted stress and anxiety.


2. Talking it through can be calming. While you don’t want to cause undue alarm in your child, avoiding the topic entirely is not always the best idea. A quick check in may be invaluable for her. Keep your question short and simple. You can check in for example by making a short fact based statement such as “The test is next week.” How your child responds will give you a clue about how she is feeling. A response laden with agitation, annoyance, or even anger can be a red flag that she is feeling stressed and anxious. An easy dismissive response such as a calm and carefree “I know” often suggests that she is doing fine. If your offspring grabs onto your query as an opportunity to talk, just listen. Often she is not looking for answers, just a chance to express her thoughts, feelings, worries, and woes out loud. This exercise can be quite helpful in releasing anxiety, but only when it come naturally without prompting from parents. Avoid loaded questions such as “How are you feeling about the test?”

3. When it comes to standardized tests, practice can relieve pressure. If your child is scheduled to take a well distributed test such as the SAT or ACT, taking practice tests under ‘test like’ conditions (e.g. in a quiet room and timing the sections) can help ease anxiety during the testing session. For many kids, anxiety stems from the stress of the situation or the process, not the content or what’s actually on the test itself.


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4. Address catastrophic thinking quickly. Because so much emphasis is put on the importance of standardized tests by parents, teachers, admission officers, etc., kids may be led to believe that a less than perfect performance will mean a future filled with gloom and doom. Make sure your child knows that one test cannot and will not determine the rest of his life. Help him strike a balance between preparing properly (if possible) and ignoring the inevitable (that they will have to take the test).


5. Pre-plan the night before the test. A healthy meal and a good sleep is the best prep for any important event such as taking a standardized test.

6. Discourage last minute studying or cramming; it is likely to lead to distress and panic. It's important to emphasize that there comes a time when she has to acknowledge that she has done all she can do to prepare. It is at this point that books should be closed, and it is time to take a leap of faith.


7. Mindfulness matters. If your child has a tendency to become disorganized or unfocused when overwhelmed by stress, work with him to develop skills which will help him stay in the moment. One method to help him keep calm is to choose a color and find three things in the room the same color. This quick exercise can help bring his focus back to the test room and calm him down. Taking a few deep breaths can also help him feel calmer. Practice these techniques prior to test time. By identifying the coping skills that work best for your child, he can develop this skill set before he takes the test.

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8. Create a 911 plan in case she panics. As mentioned above, remaining mindful is an essential test taking skill. If your child is prone to panic, help her prepare for disaster by developing a plan. Deep breathing works well for many people. Other techniques such as visualizing a favorite place can also quell anxiety and stress. Encourage your child to practice these techniques well before the test. Advise her to write down a list of techniques that work on an index card she can literally keep in her back pocket. Simply knowing that she is carrying her coping skills with her can be comforting enough to keep her calm and focused.

9. What’s done is done. If your child tends to perseverate on how he did after he takes a test, reassure him that it will all work out in the end. Focusing on would of, could of, and should of is far from productive. Encourage him to try and let it go. Why waste energy worrying about the outcome? Now is the time to relax and forget about the experience for a while. When the outcome is available, his results will dictate his next move. Until then, there is nothing he can do except try not to think about it. Of course this is often a task that is easier said then done. Step in and offer support and act as his cheerleader. Help him focus on the things in his life he can impact or control such as grades, or improving his skill at a sport or activity he enjoys.


10. Take your own advice. If you tell her not to stress or worry, it is important that you follow suit. Avoid discussing your concerns about her performance when she is in earshot or privy to your ponderings (e.g. do not comment on your concerns on a social networking site to which she has access to your postings).

In a perfect world perhaps we would all be judged for our individual strengths and talents. Unfortunately the fast paced times in which we live demand ways to quickly evaluate and assess our children’s aptitude and achievement. Although standardized testing may be a harsh reality, how your child handles the potential stress and anxiety can make all the difference. Calm and confidence are often the keys to successfully slaying the dragons we know as standardized tests. By developing and implementing a set of coping skills aimed at creating calm and keeping focused, your child will be well equipped to tackle standardized tests.


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This article was originally published at . Reprinted with permission from the author.