BY JUSTIN. M. BUFFER,
FOUNDER, OWNER, AND HEAD TEACHER/EDUCATIONAL DIRECTOR OF THE CAMBRIDGE LEARNING CENTER OF NEW JERSEY
One of the greatest challenges students face, both in school and on standardized tests, is transcending their anxiety. At our fantastic and award-winning learning center, the Cambridge Learning Center of New Jersey, we do our best to help students mitigate this anxiety. Also, in my parent meetings, while often reassuring parents that the anxiety their children experience is quite common, I tell them that it is important to have a strategic plan that all family members are involved in and that the genesis and nature of the student’s anxiety is properly understood.
Academic test anxiety is more than simply getting a little jittery before an exam. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) describes it as a full-fledged psychological condition, a type of performance anxiety characterized by “extreme nervousness about taking a test.” It is important in any discussion about such an important issue to first distinguish between normal anxiety that any student would have and when that anxiety reaches a clinical level.
When parents meet with me, I help them make this distinction.
Test anxiety can strike before, during or after any exam. There are cases where it shows up from the commencement of the school year, especially if a student knows one of the grand standardized exams is on the horizon. It can present itself in diverse symptoms, from as simple as sweaty palms, upset stomach, shallow breathing, nausea, and headaches, to more complicated symptoms such as emotional and cognitive symptoms which include feelings of helplessness and difficulty concentrating. In extreme cases, students exhibit these symptoms even after thorough preparation for the test and having a firm grasp on the material. Despite this, they will freeze or blank once the test is in front of them.
Before discussing how you can help your child cope with such anxiety, let me just offer one thing concerning special needs students: research suggests that students with disabilities experience greater test anxiety than their peers without these limitations. So, it is essential to consider other potential challenges, such as processing speed deficits, learning differences and skill deficits when diagnosing students with test anxiety.
Tips for Managing Test Anxiety
It is worth first noting that different strategies will work for different children. So, I feel that parents should be maximally flexible and have a robust bag of tricks to help their child or children. We operate on the same principle here at Cambridge.
Here are some tips to try:
· Ask your child questions for clarity. Identifying why your child is experiencing test anxiety can be helpful in figuring out the best way to manage it because this will provide valuable clues as to what will help calm him or her down. Have a calm discussion with them, helping to locate the root of their anxiety. Often times, students have a “worst-case scenario” that is not very realistic, such as “If I fail this test, I will never get into college.” You can challenge and reality test students’ misperceptions like this with: “Many students have gotten into college and didn’t do perfectly on every test in high school.”
· Use my effective test-taking strategies taught during our tutoring sessions. If your child is not a student at our center, familiarize yourself with well-known anxiety-mitigation strategies available on the public market. Strategies like familiarizing one’s child suffering from test anxiety with the actual content they’re being tested on can help calm them. Some of these techniques include reading questions thoroughly before answering them (especially for tricky technology-enhanced item types), skipping over questions that students don’t know for better time management, and reviewing answers as time allows, etc. All of these above are part of our repertoire and my curriculum at Cambridge.
· Focus on the positives. Children struggling with test anxiety dwell in patterns of negative thinking when it comes to tests. They often focus on all of the mistakes they could make, things that could go wrong, and how catastrophic a lousy score could be.
Parents should help shift their focus by assisting them to reflect on some successful past experiences. Request of them to tell you (or journal) about a test that they performed well on. How did they prepare for that test? How did they feel about it before and after? Getting them to stop and remember their abilities can go a long way toward breaking the negativity cycle—and calm nerves in the process. This can help bolster their confidence.
· Teach relaxation strategies. Visualization exercises are great for kids because they tend to have active imaginations. It is best practiced when your child is calm. Request for her to close her eyes and identify a place she feels happy, confident, and relaxed. Encourage her to share details about the sights, sounds, and scents in his calming place. As they share, cue them to take deep breaths. Then on test day, remind your child to close their eyes and visualize their calming place whenever they feel anxious.
In helping your child overcome the challenge of test anxiety, one may need to experiment a few before you find the techniques that work best for your ward. Be creative and patient, and you can have a meeting with me about it also. Actively helping your child to develop skills in self-regulation will provide benefits for decades to come.
About the author:
Justin M. Buffer is the founder, owner, and head teacher/educational director of the Cambridge Learning Center of New Jersey.
Lang, Jonas W.B., and Jessica Lang. “Priming Competence Diminishes the Link Between Cognitive Test Anxiety and Test Performance: Implications for the Interpretation of Test Scores.” Psychological Science 21, no. 6 (2010): 811-19.