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“Mid-Term” Season: Test Anxiety


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By Dr. Lisa Bateman

Tests, quizzes, and mid-term and final exams are frequently used methods of assessment to measure knowledge in the educational setting. As children progress through school, the emphasis placed upon these assessments and the weight which they carry in the grading system tends to increase. In addition to teacher-administrated assessments, schools also increasingly emphasize the importance of standardized assessments (e.g., the Standards of Learning (SOLs) in Virginia) with the educational movement towards accountability. As a result, students are routinely faced with school-based and standardized assessments that have a significant impact on their grades and academic trajectory.

Although it is typical to feel some nervousness before taking a test, some students experience significant test anxiety that can affect performance and overall quality of life. Test anxiety differs from normal nervousness in the severity of the symptoms and the impact that these symptoms have on the child’s life. Common symptoms of test anxiety include physical symptoms (e.g., nausea, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, feeling faint, diarrhea, excessive sweating), emotional symptoms (e.g., feelings of fear of failure, feelings of helplessness), and cognitive symptoms (e.g., difficulty concentrating, negative thoughts about performance). Symptoms can occur in the days leading up to the test but tend to become most severe immediately prior to the test. Test anxiety may be exacerbated by a lack of preparation, but it often occurs even when a child has taken time to prepare for the test in advance. It is often accompanied by a fear of failure and can worsen over time if the child experiences repeated difficulty with test taking.

There are many things that parents can help their children do to manage test anxiety, including:

Helping Your Child Prepare For the Test Early & Often
Parents can work with their children to develop positive study habits. Often, when a child experiences test anxiety, he or she may put off studying until the last minute in order to avoid the anxiety that accompanies thinking about and preparing for the test. Parents can help their children break up studying into manageable chunks and prepare for the test by studying for small increments of time over the course of several days.

Teaching Your Child Good Test-Taking Skills
Although schools focus on teaching students what they need to know for tests, they often focus less on preparing students for how to take tests. Parents can work with their children to practice reading directions carefully and developing a strategy for working through the test. For example, rather than getting “stuck” on a difficult question, which can lead to feelings of discouragement and use too much of the time allotted for a test, students should go through the entire test, answering questions that they know and marking questions they are unsure of to return to later. Parents should encourage children to check their work at the end of the test in order to catch errors, but parents may want to caution their children from “over-thinking,” especially with multiple-choice questions, as this may lead a child to change their previously correct answer to an incorrect answer. Parents can also help their children prepare for tests by simulating test conditions when studying, such as practicing answering questions or drafting essays following the same time constraints that would be used at school.

Teaching Your Child Relaxation Techniques
It is best to routinely practice relaxation in calm settings to master these techniques before calling upon them in stressful situations. Parents can incorporate relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation, as part of regular daily routines, such as the bedtime routine. When children are feeling stressed before an exam, parents can remind them to utilize these techniques when studying and taking the exam.

Challenging Unhelpful Thinking
If a child has a history of test anxiety that has affected performance on tests in the past, he or she may already feel defeated when approaching the next test. Parents can help children to recognize anxious thoughts (e.g., “I know I’m going to fail because I always do badly on tests”) and replace them with more helpful thoughts (e.g., “I prepared well for this test by paying attention in class, doing my homework, and studying. I know the material, and I will try my best to stay calm and focus on the test.”). Parents can also help children keep tests in perspective by considering other factors which contribute to the student’s grade (e.g., homework, participation, projects) and remembering that self-worth should not depend on a test grade.

Advocating for Your Child’s Needs in the School Setting
Parents can collaborate with their child’s teacher in order to identify appropriate accommodations that can decrease test anxiety. For example, students who worry about finishing tests on time may be given extra time so that they can focus on the material rather than the time limit. Other students may worry about being the last to finish or may be easily distracted by what other students are doing in the classroom, and teachers may consider allowing them to work on tests in a quieter environment. Parents may consider collaborating with the school counselor or school psychologist to identify if the school can provide any other supports to decrease test anxiety.

Test anxiety can have a significant effect on performance and self-esteem, but children can learn strategies to manage and gradually challenge test anxiety over time.


Lisa BatemanDr. Lisa Bateman earned her Doctoral Degree in School Psychology from the University of South Florida. Dr. Bateman is a licensed Clinical Psychologist at NeuroScience, Inc. in Herndon, VA. She specializes in the use of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) with exposure and response prevention to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder, as well as other primary anxiety disorders (e.g., social phobia, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder). In addition, she has specialized treatment experience in using CBT to treat mood disorders, ADHD, and other psychological conditions. She also has specialized experience in providing Habit Reversal Training for trichotillomania, tic disorders, and other impulse control disorders.

Dr. Bateman is a certified provider of Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, a behavioral parent training program with a strong evidence-base for young children with externalizing behaviors, such as anger outbursts, impulsivity, defiant behaviors, and socially inappropriate behaviors. She has experience in providing academic, behavioral, and mental health interventions in elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as providing family-based behavioral and therapeutic interventions in home-based and clinic settings.

Dr. Bateman currently works with children, adolescents, and adults and is available to help you or your loved ones. To schedule a consultation or appointment with Dr. Lisa Bateman, please call (703) 787-9090.

NeuroScience is located at 106 Elden St., Herndon, VA 20170. Learn more, including what insurances NeuroScience accepts, by connecting onlineFacebook, and Twitter.


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