Reducing Test-Taking Anxiety

The Situation Today

anxiety1With New York State tests just around the corner, hearing children in your life complaining about their fears or frustrations around writing short answers and extended responses, explaining their answers, or the “stupid Common Core”, may be frequent.

As a tutor in Manhattan to several third, fourth, and fifth grade public school students who are gearing up for the tests, I see varying levels of apprehension, ranging from complete excitement over getting to watch movies after taking the test, to downright terror and dread at the thought of failing their grade or being put through summer school.

These eight, nine, ten, and eleven-year-olds are experiencing standardized testing unlike anything we ever underwent as students; the new Common Core Standards that have been adopted by most states (2013 in New York) expect rigorous text analysis, descriptive responses, and thorough explanation of the process by which a solution is found. English Language Arts (ELA) is hardly as simple as reading a passage and answering questions about what happened in the text. Math no longer requires rote problem solving. The test is harder and it counts for more.

And guess what? Kids get it. Parents and teachers have warned them about the rigorousness and importance of the tests, and it’s got these children panicked.

If you are a parent of a student who is taking the state test this month or even just know one, it is important to keep the child’s emotional welfare in mind during this stressful time in their lives. Below are some strategies and tips that are sure to help bring a smile to your young test-taker’s face.

Unload the Yuckies

Find out what is bugging the student:

A great exercise is called unloading. Let your child write for five minutes about every fear or stressor that she is feeling or anticipates feeling on test day. Try to let her see which fears are the easiest to deal with today: running out of time, not knowing something, making a mistake; and eliminate fears that are out of her control today: getting left back, failing, summer school.

Address each fear with reassurance and positive self-talk mantras:

  • “I’m going to run out of time!” Let your child know that there is enough time for the test and that she should repeat, “I do have enough time,” to herself during the test. You can also get more information about the length of the test and what is expected and discuss this with your child. For example, day one of the third grade New York State ELA test is 50 minutes with 5 passages plus questions. Explain that the test is designed so that she has 10 minutes for each passage and its proceeding questions, which is ample time.
  • “What if I don’t know the answer?” Encourage your child to do her best and use the information she knows to help her answer the questions. Also, she should move if a problem is unfamiliar and frustrating and return to it later. Again, a self-talk mantra of, “I’m doing my best and my best is enough,” is strongly encouraged.

Build up the Happy Thoughts

Following the process of unloading the fears and addressing each one, move on to a five-minute writing activity in which your child can write freely about a place, person, situation, or memory that makes her completely blissful. Let her share her writing with you and encourage her to tell you more about why what she wrote about makes her so happy. Do not bring up the test; let this experience simply be one to make her calm and happy at that moment. I suggest doing this writing activity each night before a day of testing or even the mornings of the test.

Keep Calm and Carry On

Every kid calms down differently, but the suggestions below are well-known relaxation strategies.

Scents like vanilla, lavender, and coconut are known to be calming. Instead of drenching your child in perfume that might distract other children, let her try using a scented lip balm. Not only will she have the calming scent, but she also gets something super special – a secret weapon!

Listening to music, singing along, and dancing are all feel-good activities that can automatically reduce stress. How about a family dance party the night before the test or over breakfast the morning of plus a fun sing-along on the way to school?!

Encourage your child to eat a healthy breakfast high in whole grain goodness. Carbohydrates release serotonin, our brain’s own happy chemical, and will also keep your child full and focused while taking the test.

A good night’s sleep in a cool, cozy room is important. Keep bedtime regular the night before and make sure your child has enough time to get ready in the morning without feeling rushed.

It is up to you, too!

Most importantly, create a peaceful, happy home and model calm behavior for your child. If she sees that you are edgy or nervous, she will probably internalize your energy and bring it with her to the test. The state tests are like a game: your child should try to do her best, but also have some fun while doing it.

Good luck!

LaurenFarrell-150x150Lauren Farrell is a private tutor who lives and works in Manhattan. She specializes in literacy development across all age groups and learning backgrounds and focuses largely on building learners’ confidence. To learn more about or to connect with Lauren, visit

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