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First Test Jitters: Beat Test Anxiety

September 19, 2017

This week your students are more than likely taking their first quizzes and tests of the new school year. Given the desire to make a good first impression, you’re probably noticing a bit more stress than usual. Here’s what you need to know about test anxiety to help students do their best.

Optimal Stress

A little stress is a good thing. It motivates kids to study. The nervous energy during the test helps your mind actively recall what you know and work at the pace you need to finish. So as the graph below shows, the goal isn’t no stress. The goal is optimal stress.

Performance Anxiety

Image credit: Abby Weinstein

Where’s the Stress Coming From?

Students can experience too much stress for innumerable reasons. Among the most common: being a perfectionist, peer pressure, realizing they aren’t prepared, and generalized anxiety. The higher the stakes, the more pressure they feel. And in today’s world, who can blame them?

The problem is that if they get too close to the red zone, they won’t do as well as they could. Too much test anxiety will make it difficult to remember what they know, juggle steps on complex problems, and work at a steady pace to finish on time and check their work. If they don’t do as well as they expect, it is likely to cause more stress for the next test. You can see how this can easily go down a steep and slippery slope.

On the positive side, if they hit the mark on that first test, it could provide the self-confidence for a semester of smooth sailing.

3 tips to keep kids in the right zone

Tip 1: “Throw Away” Test Anxiety

Have them write down their biggest fears about the test on a piece of paper. Give them 10 minutes. Promise them you won’t read what they write. Then have them crumple up the paper and literally and metaphorically throw it away. It sounds too crazy and simple, BUT IT DOES WORK. If you’re a parent, you can do this the night before or in the morning before school. If you’re a teacher, have the whole class do it before the test.

An alternative approach is to have students write about their strengths. This calming exercise builds self-esteem and puts the test in perspective. Realistically, you can’t do this one too often. Save it for the BIG TEST. Maybe the ACT or SAT, or a very important exam.

Tip 2: Validate Feelings

Don’t tell them why they shouldn’t be nervous, that’s likely to have them internalize more anxiety. Instead listen to their concerns. Let them know you understand. Let them know that you believe in them. Then ask them what you can do to help make them less nervous, perhaps a fidget toy, a moment of mindfulness, a favorite snack, quizzing them.

Tip 3: Go to Bed

What your mom always told you about good a night sleep has so much scientific backing. When you sleep, you consolidate what you learned so you remember it better in the morning. When you get a good night sleep your attention and memory skills are sharper. Insufficient sleep has the same effects on brain efficiency as anxiety. So even if your anxiety is in the yellow zone, if you don’t get enough sleep it can move you over the tipping point.

And while it often feels impractical, teens should be getting nine hours of sleep a night. The image below might make you re-think the real underlying reason for your teen’s stress. Maybe it’s not the test after all…

Image Credit: Abby Weinstein


More test taking strategies

More anxiety-coping strategies

(If you don’t have a Mindprint Toolbox, you’ll need to get your free one here)






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