How to help kids reduce stress with smarter study strategies and a healthy dose of perspective
Standardized test. Two words that conjure up thoughts of No. 2 pencils, multiple choice bubbles and, for most of us, a sense of dread.
From state-mandated grade school testing to applying for college, standardized testing is a fact of academic life for most students. And while learning to like them may be a stretch, effective preparation, a little perspective, and the right attitude can make the process less painful and more productive for kids and parents alike.
Why do tests make us anxious?
As most of us are aware, when you are feeling anxious or panicky, you usually can’t think clearly. And knowing that you aren’t thinking very well can only make you more anxious. This can lead to anxiety before a test and freezing up during the test. Anxiety can be magnified during certain kinds of tests, particularly standardized ones.
We don’t take standardized tests as often as we take other kinds of tests, and they often feel more important. They might determine whether a child will be held back a year or test into in a gifted program, or be used to measure their school and their teacher. For some kids, the fact that they are being ranked among their peers can be anxiety-provoking.
Standardized tests can also play a role in determining whether a student can go get into a specific school, get credit for an AP class or get a high school diploma. Of course the most intimidating standardized tests most kids will take are the SAT and the ACT for college.
Anxiety is not only uncomfortable but can interfere with kids’ ability do their best. But helping them come up with a plan for studying ahead of time, and ways to handle anxiety in the moment, can enable them settle down and focus more effectively.
Plan of attack
Part of what makes standardized tests feel so difficult is that unlike, say, a history final, they tend to cover a wider range of subjects and aren’t always focused on material your child has recently learned, which can make studying tricky. Here are some strategies for tackling that challenge:
Start early: “The emphasis should be on studying slow and steadily,” says Matthew Pagirsky, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “It’s important that kids aren’t trying to cram all the information the night before or even a week or a month before.”
When it comes to retaining new information, time and repetition are key to making things stick, and making sure you’re able to call them back up when it’s test time. Because of this, cramming — trying to pack a ton of studying into a short period of time — is unlikely to be much help. “Studying over a period of time, absorbing the information gradually, is the only real way to be sure you’re going to be able to recall it when you need to,” adds Dr. Pagirsky.
Make a schedule and stick to it: Work with your child ahead of the test to set a reasonable timeline for studying. For example, if your child is planning on taking the SAT in 6 months, you could agree that she’ll spend 5 hours a week studying and take a practice test every Sunday.
As the test draws closer, she might meet with a study group once a week or take an SAT prep class as well. This is doubly important if you know your child is prone to procrastination or struggles with time management.
Learn the test format: Getting comfortable with the structure of an upcoming test and the kinds of topics covered can make students feel more confident. Different tests may include multiple-choice questions, short answer questions, document-based questions, long essays or math problems where you answer using a grid. This range may sound overwhelming, but taking practice tests in particular can help kids get used to the format and feel much less panicked when they sit down to take the real one.
Prioritize: Knowing more about the elements of the test makes it easier for kids to identify their strengths and weaknesses, which can help them prioritize areas that may need a little extra preparation. In other words instead of worrying about the math test as a whole, a student might identify that actually she’s pretty okay at geometry and numbers and operations, but she might want to focus on algebra when she studies.
If your child is entitled to testing accommodations, find out what specific accommodations he can expect, and if you need to do anything to request them. Making sure your child, too, knows what to expect.
“Accommodations themselves are very complex,” says Dr. Pagirsky, “There’s not a ton of data that suggests they have a huge impact on test scores but, he says, when it comes to standardized testing, just knowing the option of accommodations exists can help reduce anxiety. Extra time on tests may not necessarily be a panacea for kids with learning and concentration issues, but the knowledge that the accommodation is there to be used can help calm kids’ fears and reduce overall anxiety, which can be a benefit in and of itself.
Handling anxiety in the moment
Ahead of time, help your child come up with strategies to help her calm down if she starts feeling panicked. Practicing deep breathing and other relaxation and mindfulness strategies can be very helpful here, of course. Your child can practice different techniques and see what is most effective for her.
There are also different test-taking strategies that can help kids feel more in control. For example, if your child has a hard time with multiple choice questions, she might find that it helps if she narrows down the options by crossing out answers that she knows aren’t correct. Or if she comes across a question that really throws her, she might make a note to come back to that question later.
Setting basic ground rules about not spending too much time on any one question and not second guessing yourself if you know you are prone to doing that can also be good strategies for keeping yourself calm.
Finally, accepting when you truly don’t know something and moving on instead of beating yourself up is both kind to yourself and smart because it allows you more time to spend on other questions that you have a better chance of answering.
Manage expectations — especially your own
“This may be the hardest thing for parents,” says Dr. Pagirsky. It’s only human to want your child to do well, he says, but parents have to be cautious when it comes to expressing their own expectations and anxieties. Even though it may not always seem like it, kids are deeply tuned into their parents’ expectations. If kids sense that you have high hopes for their test performance, it’s likely to compound any anxiety they feel about doing well.
“What we want is to help kids have a healthy amount of anxiety around a test,” says Dr. Pagirsky. Some anxiety is good, he explains, it helps with performance and keeps kids focused, but too much can leave kids floundering.
In terms of exams for competitive schools and colleges, kids sometimes live in fear that their whole future hinges on this one test. “Kids may feel like if they mess up, or don’t get the score they’d hoped for that’s it,” says Dr. Pagirsky, “game over.” But it’s not.
Parents can help by expressing confidence that their children have a lot of strengths, and that there many different routes to a fulfilling future.
“Do some discovery,” says Dr. Pagirsky. “Talk to your child about his interests and goals in a non-judgmental way. ‘What are the things you do really well? What are the things you like to do? What are you passionate about?’ And then talk about how you can work together to sculpt that into a meaningful path.”