Overcoming Test-Taking Jitters

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Up to 20% of kids struggle with test-taking anxiety. Why so much angst? Whether your child is trying to get into college or pass final exams, they have certain dreams and expectations — and tests are one of the goal posts along the way. So it makes sense that poor test performance could impact a child’s self-esteem and even lead to depression.

Test-Taking Anxiety 101

A certain amount of stress before a test is normal, even healthy. A surge of adrenaline, some jitters, even frayed nerves can help sharpen focus and improve performance. But in extreme cases, test-taking anxiety can be debilitating. The body shifts into fight-or-flight mode and the fallout can include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle tension

Tips for Managing Exam Anxiety

While test-taking jitters may seem unavoidable, these four strategies can minimize the hit:

  1. Prepare in advance: Test preparation isn’t just studying. It’s practicing. Try to mimic the test day environment. That includes taking timed practice tests. The more comfortable a child is with the process of taking the test, the better they’ll do.
  2. Get sufficient sleep: It may be tempting to pull an all-nighter, but that strategy usually backfires. The body and mind need rest to perform optimally. Shut down studying at least 30 minutes before bed and encourage kids and teens to engage in a soothing bedtime routine.
  3. Choose optimal fuel: A nutritious breakfast on test day – one that includes protein and fiber – gives a body a steady stream of nutrients during an exam.
  4. Monitor your thoughts: Teach kids and teens to pay attention to their internal monologues. Are they bashing themselves for being unprepared? Are they convinced they’re going to fail? Teach them this technique: As soon as a negative thought arises, shift it to one that is positive. They can even come up with a mantra. Something like: I studied. I’m prepared. I’m ready to go. Then close your eyes and take three deep breaths. Breathing deeply can help calm a racing mind.

Thriving Through Anxiety

Test-taking success rests largely on the kid taking the test, but there are a few things parents can do to help their students thrive:

  • Watch your words: Parents often don’t realize how much pressure they’re putting on their children. So the next time you want to say, “You won’t get into college if you don’t study,” bite your tongue instead.
  • Focus on the end goal: Remember what’s really important — health, happiness and well-being — and put your focus there. Your child may have aspirations that don’t require high test scores.
  • Be supportive: Acknowledge what your child is experiencing while also helping them come up with strategies to manage their anxiety. You can even practice deep breathing, yoga, meditation and other mind/body techniques to help them relax so they’re better equipped to do their best.

Some kids need extra help to manage test-related anxieties. Often, these are driven kids who do well in school. Talk to your child’s teacher about what’s happening in the classroom and make sure it matches his test-taking skills.

Most important, pay attention to underlying conditions, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia, that could be contributing to test-taking anxiety. In those cases, school administrators can make special accommodations for your child, including extra time to complete the test or a change of environment.

If your child is still struggling come test time, talk to his or her health care provider or a mental health professional. In severe cases of test-taking anxiety, ongoing psychotherapy or medication may be warranted.


To find a doctor or mental health professional at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

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Stacy Leatherwood Cannon, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician and the physician champion for childhood wellness for Henry Ford LiveWell. She sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Centers in midtown Detroit and Sterling Heights. Learn more about Dr. Leatherwood Cannon.

Categories: ParentWell

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