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How to help students manage anxiety before and during a test

The signs of anxiety and depression. A discussion on youth and mental health

Jennifer Katzenstein, director of psychology and neuropsychology for John Hopkins All Children's Hospital, speaks on common mental disorders.
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Jennifer Katzenstein, director of psychology and neuropsychology for John Hopkins All Children's Hospital, speaks on common mental disorders.

Molly lightly knocked on my door and poked her head in through the small opening. With tears brimming in her eyes, she told me that she had an upcoming math test that day and just knew that she was going to fail it. Could we talk?

As a school counselor for over 30 years, I know that our culture has emphasized academic preparation without really teaching the emotional skills that are needed to be successful. Without healthy coping skills, our teens are feeling anxious over every day struggles. We can help. We can teach students to manage test anxiety before and during the test.

Anxiety (test anxiety is a form of performance anxiety) is a signal that helps our bodies to prepare for something important that’s about to happen. Learning to use it to an advantage instead of just reacting to, or avoiding it, is key. Asking for help is the first step. Students can start by speaking with teachers, school counselors, or even academic tutors.

Here is short list of additional coping strategies:

  1. Be academically prepared. Knowing and understanding the concepts that are being tested is crucial. Studying with other peers, reviewing notes, or finding a tutor are good ways to prepare. Learning and practicing daily study skills and routines are especially important.

  2. Have a positive mental attitude. Approaching an exam with positive mental energy can make a difference. Using positive self-talk phrases like “I can do this,” implementing positive visualization, deep-breathing, journaling, etc. are all ways to help calm nerves.

  3. Get enough sleep. Don’t wait until the night before to cram. Timing is important and a good night’s sleep can help your student face an exam with positivity and focus.

  4. Fuel up. Filling the body with nutritious foods (eating both breakfast and lunch) or munching on smart snacks before an exam can help students stay awake and sharp.

  5. Arrive early and get settled. Rushing to the testing room will only amp up feelings of anxiety. Arriving early allows a couple of extra minutes to practice some deep breathing or other relaxation techniques before starting the test.

  6. Accept mistakes and setbacks. If you don’t know the answer, it’s OK. Move on to the next question. Understand that if one test doesn’t go well, that doesn’t mean that the next exam can’t be more successful. Testing skills take time to develop. It’s a process.

  7. Use a reward. Plan a reward after the test. Take some time to relax and breathe. Give yourself a mental break and find something fun to do.

Using support and understanding while still holding high (and realistic) expectations for our children can help them to face their fears head-on. If sitting for a test gets your student so stressed out that they miss answers they clearly know or causes them severe panic, their level of anxiety may need further attention. Consult a professional who can assess your child’s mental health. There is help available.

Susan Marshall is State College Area School District’s family & community engagement counselor.
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