Everyone worries. Worry is a very normal and healthy emotion that we all experience from time to time, particularly as a reaction to stress.
But for some children, their worry can become excessive and interfere with their ability to enjoy school. Many children experience some level of worry when taking tests or when performing or competing. Test anxiety, or performance anxiety, is not uncommon.
This is especially true in the late primary grades when children encounter test-taking and public presentations for the first time. For students in elementary school, EQAO and speech season is upon us. Thinking about the possible bad things that can happen can make a child feel worried. For example, they might be thinking, “what if everyone laughs at me?”, “what if my parents get mad at me?”, “what if I forget everything I know?”. Kids can also worry about their physical reactions, like “what if I turn red or what if I stutter”? It’s important to recognize that these thoughts can make things worse.
So what can you do to help ease your child’s anxiety?
Begin with an explanation of what evaluations are for:
Tests help teachers understand how well children are learning the skills and information they are teaching. Reassure your child that tests are part of everyday life and serve as a guide for future learning. In fact, tests are helpful and benefit both teachers and students by providing direction for future teaching.
Recognize that Anxiety can express itself in different ways:
Anxiety can express itself in many different ways. While some children might cry or seek comfort from parents, other children may act out and have temper tantrums or appear resistant when they are feeling worried. In this latter situation, remember, your child isn’t trying to be difficult, they just don’t know how to cope with overwhelming emotions. Sometimes, children seem fine at school, but let out all of their pent-up feelings of worry at the end of the day when they are at home with their parents. This can be very confusing for parents, teachers and the child.
Recognize that anxiety is very contagious and that if your child is anxious, it is perfectly natural to react with apprehension as well. Depending on how your child is dealing with the feelings of anxiety, you may find yourself at your wits end trying to calm, soothe, reason with your child. Remember to stay calm.
Also remember that worry emotions are not always rationale and you cannot reason away a worry or a fear. So, while you may think that your child is not listening to reason, it’s important to recognize that anxiety interrupts one’s ability to interpret and focus on what’s being said. A better approach is to provide the child with concrete steps to manage the anxiety.
How to help your child cope with feelings of anxiety:
Whether they are afraid of making mistakes, or whether they are inexperienced with taking tests, there are strategies that children can use and ways that you can help them to reduce their level of stress. Remember, strategies are best taught before the anxious reaction or event and need to be practiced regularly.
- First, reassure your child that feeling some level of worry about taking a test of any kind is very normal and natural. They are not alone. Let your child know that everyone gets anxious sometimes and that there are things they can do to feel better.
- Teach your child to recognize physical symptoms of anxiety. For example, upset tummy, headache, needing to use the bathroom more often the usual, shaking or sweaty body may all be signs of feeling worried or stressed. Many young children believe that they are sick when in fact they are feeling anxious about an upcoming event, like a test.
- Teach your child relaxation strategies such as calm breathing. There are many apps and websites to help with this, and some schools have incorporated these strategies into the everyday routine of their classrooms.
- Teach them to recognize unhelpful thoughts, such as “I can’t do this, I’m going to fail”. Encourage your child to recognize when they are engaging in negative self-talk. You can model that. Help them learn to think realistically and use realistic self-talk. For example, instead of saying “I’m going to fail”, they could try saying “I’ll do my best”, “It’s only one test”.
- It’s never too early to teach children self-care. For example, getting lots of sleep, exercising, establishing a regular routine, eating a healthy diet, and balancing school work with opportunities for play and fun.
- If your child’s anxiety does not improve, consider consultation with your family doctor and/or a regulated mental health professional, such as a Psychologist, who can work with you and your child so that the anxiety becomes manageable.
About Dr. Anita Burhanpurkar
Registered with the College of Psychologists of Ontario (CPO) since 2003, Dr. Anita Burhanpurkar is licensed by the College of Psychologists of Ontario to work with children, adolescents and families. She currently works for the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board in Mississauga and also provides psychological services to children and adolescents through her private practice, Hummingbird Psychology.