Keeping a Healthy Perspective on Stress and Test Anxiety

by Vidisha Patel

April is one of my favorite months of the year. April signifies the advent of spring, and with it comes the promise of longer days and warmer weather and a sense of hope that winter is finally behind us. For our school-going children, spring also marks the commencement of the “testing season.”  In Florida, where I currently live, standardized testing takes place this month, followed by final exams.

Test taking can be stressful for many individuals, and when you add gifted tendencies to the mix, stress levels can reach alarming levels. In some instances, gifted students get so anxious and stressed about assessments that they are not able to function. Normal, everyday tasks are forgotten, and simple assignments become too complex to understand.

Parents can assist their children to ease the stress and anxiety around test taking in a variety of ways.

Face the fear. Start by helping children acknowledge their anxiety. Fear is an emotion that can be addressed only when it is acknowledged. One way to understand fear is to consider it as False Evidence Appearing Real. How many times do we become fearful about something that has not yet happened? Usually, fear is based in anticipation of an event and is exacerbated by our imagination. Gifted children frequently have vivid imaginations, so the fear is further exaggerated.  “What if my pencil breaks and I have nothing to write with…?” “What if I don’t know the answer and waste my time stuck on one problem?” “What if….?” You get the picture. Initially, many of the anxieties may be plausible, but when taken out of context, they become a problem. Verbalizing the thoughts allows the child to “hear” the fear and opens the door for a concrete discussion and further conversation.

Create confidence. Anxiety frequently stems from a lack of confidence in oneself.  It may sound shocking, but many gifted kids do not fully recognize their capabilities. They may downplay their abilities and lack confidence in themselves. Adults can help them understand how prepared they are. As a parent, you can assist your child by reviewing with them and reminding them of what they know. Sometimes children get so caught up in how much they do not know that they forget what they do know. Prior to a test, spend time with your child discussing what material needs to be covered, how much they already are comfortable with, and what they may need to focus on. This is not to suggest that you study with your child, but merely assist anxious children to get started in their preparation.  Help them by showing them what they already know rather than telling them, and also point out where they can improve. As much as children enjoy being praised, they become wary of compliments given in isolation.

Keep the perspective. In the recent past, there has been a trend that emphasizes testing. Teachers and parents have been known to focus significant attention on preparation for the “Big Day.” While preparation is important, too much can give test day a false sense of importance. While standardized tests have their value, there are many other facets to a child’s education. In the larger scheme of schooling, students will be assessed along the way each year with quizzes, midterms, and finals, in addition to the standardized tests. The beauty of the American educational system is that it does not require qualifying exams, but rather sees a comprehensive collection of data to determine a student’s ability, so that no single test can be all-important in determining the future of a child. Remind yourself and your children frequently that there are many opportunities in the course of the year to demonstrate their abilities.

Teach some tools. Despite all your efforts as a parent to help your children face their fears, to create confidence, and to keep things in perspective, some students will continue to worry. In these instances, it is best to offer some tools that your child can hold onto and use as needed.

  • Simple breathing techniques are helpful. Slowing down and evening your breath quickly creates a feeling of calmness in the body.
  • Visualization exercises help students imagine their intended outcomes, thereby giving them control over their desired results. The ability to visualize an outcome allows your child to “see” what they will look like and how they will feel when they succeed. Visualizing how they want to feel while taking the test gives them greater control over their emotions, as well.
  • Affirmations that are short and simple can also help boost confidence in the midst of worry. Work with children to create a positive affirmation that works for them. Keep it simple and to the point. Have them practice it frequently. If they find themselves feeling anxious on the day of the test or even during the test, they can affirm their statements inwardly.
  • Sometimes an object that is small and can be kept in their pocket or desk is helpful. The object would serve as a reminder of their confidence in themselves, a belief in their abilities, or simply something soothing. A client of mine loved animals and found herself soothed by the presence or thought of the cats. She found a tiny keychain with a cat on it. She placed the keychain in her pocket. Just touching it occasionally throughout the day proved to be extremely helpful in reducing her anxiety. The keychain served as a reminder to her of everything that we had discussed in our sessions about building her self-confidence.

Model what you want to see. Ultimately, it is the child’s responsibility to take charge of his or her own emotions. As parents, you can assist your children by being available to listen to their concerns and being supportive of their endeavors. However, you cannot do the work for them or take the tests for them.  Keep your own perspective as you support your children and recognize that you are your child’s best teacher. Model the behavior that you would like your children to follow, and then let them make the choice.

In the end, children must decide for themselves how they will respond to any given situation. And remember that standardized tests are just a small stepping-stone along the longer journey of life.

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SENG Director Vidisha Patel has a doctorate of Education in Counseling Psychology and practices as a therapist in Sarasota, Florida, where much of her work is with gifted children and their families, with a focus on stress and anxiety.

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