Is your child worried about a test? Here are some tips to reduce test anxiety from Dr. Ellen Braaten, a Mass General psychologist.

Certain students are more likely to experience test anxiety, and if you find that your child is experiencing this kind of anxiety, it’s important to know which category he or she falls into, as the treatment plan for each may differ.

Ellen Braaten, Ph.D. is associate director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program (LEAP) at Massachusetts General Hospital. She is also an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. She is co-author of the book Bright Kids Who Can't Keep Up, which was released in August 2014.

Ellen Braaten, PhD, is associate director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program (LEAP) at Mass General. She is co-author of the book “Bright Kids Who Can’t Keep Up.”

Types of Students

  • Students who have a history of general anxiety, who worry a lot, or who are perfectionists. These students may benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy to treat the underlying symptoms of anxiety.
  • Students who aren’t prepared to take the test. Preparation is the best anxiety-reducer, regardless of the situation. The opposite is also true—not being prepared to do something can cause even the “coolest” person to become nervous. For these students, preparation is the key to getting control of the anxiety.
  • Students who have an underlying learning disability or attention deficit. Students who have academic challenges are more likely to experience anxiety around tests. For these students, finding appropriate test accommodations, such as extra time or the ability to take the test in a quiet location, may serve to curb the anxiety.

Regardless of the cause of the anxiety, there are some general guidelines that can help all students who find themselves worrying about tests. Feel free to pass along the following advice to your child.

Before the Test

  • Be prepared. Good study skills and habits are important. It’s also important to attend class and keep accurate notes. If poor preparation is a chronic problem, getting tutored or taking a class in study skills can help you gain the skills you need to be prepared.
  • Get enough sleep. A recent study found that people who got 8 hours of sleep before taking a math test were nearly three times more likely to figure out a problem than people who stayed awake all night studying.
  • Talk to the teacher or professor. Ask them for suggestions on how best to study for a particular test, such as what material will be covered, or whether the test format will be essay, multiple choice, or fill-in-the-blank.
  • Be aware of negative thoughts and challenge them with logic. Don’t say things such as, “I know I’m going to fail.” Instead, say, “How do I know I’m going to fail?” and, “Just because I was anxious on my last exam, doesn’t mean I’ll be anxious this time.”
  • Approach the exam with confidence. Use whatever strategies that work best for you: visualization, logic, talking to yourself, over preparation, or participating in a study group.

Strategies for Success

Just because other students are finishing the exam and you’re not yet done, doesn’t mean that you won’t do well.

  • Read the directions carefully. If you don’t understand the directions, ask the teacher to clarify.
  • Do the simple questions first to build your confidence for the harder questions. Focus on the question at hand, and don’t let your mind wander to what you don’t know.
  • Watch your thinking during the test. Be aware of negative thoughts, as they may contribute to anxiety. If you find yourself thinking negative thoughts (“I’m going to flunk this!”), replace them with more positive messages (“I’ve studied hard and know this material, so I’ll do the best I can.”).
  • Focus on what you’re doing—not what your classmates are doing. Just because other students are finishing the exam and you’re not yet done, doesn’t mean that you won’t do well. Don’t panic if others finish before you do.
  • For essay exams, organize your thoughts in an outline first.
  • If you find yourself getting anxious during the test, relax and take slow, deep breaths. Think about the next step, and acknowledge that you are doing your best.

Above all, students should always expect some anxiety. It’s proof that you want to do the best you can and, if harnessed correctly, it can provide you with the energy to do so. When the test is over, reward yourself for having tried. Don’t go over the test questions with others, as it may just increase your anxiety. Learning to manage test anxiety can take time, but if you find that you’re consistently experiencing significant anxiety, seek help from your school counselor. Talk to your teacher(s) so that they’re aware of your problem well in advance of the first exam. They may, too, have additional suggestions.

Learning to cope with test anxiety can help you acquire strategies to handle general stress, and that can be a valuable skill in many situations—not just those where you are taking an exam.

For more information about the MGH Clay Center for Healthy Minds, please contact us.