Test-Taking Anxiety

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  • Test Anxiety

    (3 replies)

    Hi BPN -

    Looking for advice to help with test anxiety.  My fifth grader experiences this and struggles to complete tests -- especially math tests.  Here are some of the things she describes that happen when taking a test:  She becomes immediately overwhelmed and nervous and forgets how to do the problems.  She is unable to recall anything and just sits there feeling anxious and stressed.  The few questions she manages to answer are usually wrong -- for example, she frequently will add instead of multiply or will transpose numbers. She loses all focus and ultimately gives up. Her anxiety skyrockets when the first person turns their test in -- she then goes into a spiral of feeling stupid (her words) as she observes more students turning in their tests.  When she gets home, she tells me what happened and falls apart.  It's painful to watch and no matter how much I reassure her that I'm not concerned about the test and it's okay and offer suggestions for next time, she cries, feels like a failure and questions her intelligence.  

    Primarily, I'm concerned about the anxiety and inability to focus.  Additionally, I'm concerned about her inability to take a test given middle school is around the corner and feel like we need to get her help asap.  She doesn't have any learning differences that I'm aware of and she does know the material and is meeting grade level standards.  I've mentioned this to her teacher but have been told that she's doing fine and should continue trying to focus and trust her ability to answer the questions.  I'm going to continue talking to the teacher as I think we need additional intervention.  She experiences what can only be described as a mental health crisis when confronted with a test.  I worry about how much this is impacting her self-esteem and confidence in herself.  Telling her to "just keep trying" is not helpful and she is clearly distressed.

    I would not describe her as generally anxious or suffering from anxiety in other facets of life -- just this one area.  She's a pretty happy kid overall except when it comes to test taking.

    Would love to hear from anyone who has been through this and any effective coaching or therapy that helped your anxious test taker.  

    Poor kid - this sounds really painful for everyone. I wholeheartedly agree that "just keep trying" is not only unhelpful, it could add to the trauma, by giving her the message that she's got to fix herself. Your instincts are so on the money to help her now before this test-taking situation spirals to impact her in a bigger way. I've worked in schools in the past (and now as a private academic coach) with anxious kids and I raised one myself (though not around tests so much - but definitely school stuff). My best two pieces of advice - 1) connect with a therapist who can work with your daughter around managing this anxiety, and 2) request that in the meantime, the school provide a testing accommodation for her - I wonder if she has an aide or tutor sitting next to her to prompt her/calm her during a test, help her read questions, advise her on which order to answer questions, give her a break in the middle for a snack or to breathe, encourage/praise her persistence, help her with positive self-talk and focus throughout. I feel like an accommodation that could be gradually stepped down would help her as she works through the anxiety therapeutically. All the best to you and your daughter, and I'm happy to chat offline if you'd like to.

    This sounds a lot like my kid, who has severe Inattentive ADD. Confronted with a test, or really anything where there is a time limit, he freezes.  Pop quizzes and classwork were difficult too. He's like a runner who needs to do stretches for longer than he is going to actually run, while all the other runners are zipping past.  I want to echo what a previous responder said about testing accommodations -- typically extra time to finish, and/or a quiet place to take the test away from other students. Do whatever you need to do to get her accommodations for tests. You might be able to set it up with the school or with individual teachers, or you might need to get a 504 plan first, for anxiety, or ADD or executive functioning deficits (not knowing how/where to begin can be a sign of executive function issues.) Some middle/high schools may not offer your daughter accommodations without a 504 or IEP - we found that to be the case at Berkeley High - but even if they do, you will definitely need something 'official' later on for college if the testing anxiety persists.  The school district must comply if you request testing for learning differences, or you can pay out of pocket for a neuropsych evaluation.

    What worked for my kid: In public middle school most of his teachers let him come in at lunch or after school to take or finish tests. In high school this worked for a while for some classes but eventually he changed to a much smaller school that was more flexible. Test prep programs for the SAT and ACT are really helpful in teaching kids how to approach a test so you could look into finding one of those that is tailored for middle schoolers. It just gives them the tools they need when they are sitting in class with a test in front of them, and there is a lot of repetitive practice taking timed tests, which helped my kid. He used the same strategy to take the driver's license test: lots of online practice tests beforehand. For the ACT my kid was granted extended time and testing in a quiet room on his own, and he did very well between that and the test prep.  In college, all his tests took place in the tutoring center instead of in the classroom. All of the colleges he applied to offered this sort of accommodation to students with an "official" learning difference. In most cases they'd set it up with the professors as a 'standing order' ahead of time and schedule the testing for my son.  I bet a set-up like this would show your daughter she can really shine if she has the right support! Best wishes.

    I'm sorry your daughter is experiencing test anxiety. My daughter did also, and still does as a junior at an elite college. However, she's learned to manage it. When my daughter was in middle school, she work with a therapist whose practice was CBT (cognitive behavior therapy) based. This was highly effective for her and limited in duration since the problem and goal was specific. In high school, she worked with a tutor at AJ Tutoring for SAT prep. She didn't need content tutoring as much as test anxiety management and test taking strategies to manage the anxiety during the test. She was well matched to a tutor experienced in working with students around building these skills.

    It's worth noting that for my daughter, accommodations such as a separate room or more time were not effective as they did not address the root of the problem. Indeed, such accommodations only increased her anxiety. Each child is different. I encourage you to work with professionals experienced in test anxiety for early support. The longer it goes on, the more entrenched it becomes.

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7th grader with math test taking anxiety

May 2012

My 7th grade daughter totally freezes on math tests. She seems incapable of thinking under pressure even when she knows the material. The school has been accomodating with giving her a quiet place to work but nothing seems to work. Any advice? anon


Hi. Good for you for recognizing that your daughter needs help now and reaching out. Its sounds like you are taking the right steps. I am a private math tutor and see this often. First, find a good math tutor that your daughter is comfortable with. Her school should have some recommendations. The ultimate confidence is knowledge. Second, this may sound strange but I have seen it work, speak with her pediatrician about prescribing beta-blockers for test days. They are not a sedative. This will curb her physical reaction of anxiety but not hinder accessing knowledge. The three students I have seen this work with only needed them for a year or two and learned how to take their tests calmly and what they needed to prepare for them. Best of luck. Julia


hi, i have exactly the same--7th grade girl w/ math test taking anxiety. of course this is nothing new (for us-- and i presume for you too); she's been anxious about math for a long time. oddly, she's actually pretty good at math (when she can exorcise her demons about it--she calls them her ''green monster'' and her ''gorilla''--therapist helped name them). i scored 800 on my math sat's (100 or so years ago it seems) and her mother is an accountant, no math slouch herself, so it is no surprise she is actually good at math. problem w/ mine (and i presume w/ yours) is just lack of confidence. could be many reasons for this, but i don't think they really matter. the important thing (in my limited experience) is to PUMP HER UP. celebrate her successes, make a big deal about it when she gets something right. when she struggles, try not to set the bar too high for her; sympathize w/ the struggle, tell her you understand how difficult it is, just keep patiently working w/ her on it. tell her you think most kids have this same struggle, but that even if they don't, you know she'll get it eventually, but she needs to repeat it and repeat it a few times till it sinks in. but reassure her that it will (eventually). there is no timetable and should be no rush. she'll get it when she gets it (w/ each new subject). sometimes you can help her make out a chart of key rules (such as how to convert percents to decimals or fractions--and vice versa; or area of circle vs. circumference/diameter and those two simple formulas; or difference between adding/subtracting positive and negative numbers vs. multiplying/dividing them). tell her you struggled when you were her age too (even if that isn't exactly true for you, it is true for many, so let her know it's ok to take time to learn new math concepts). but mostly tell her that her grade doesn't really matter all that much to you (and it shouldn't; she's in 7th grade). tell her all that matters is that she relax and have fun w/ math--it can be fun, esp. when you can help her get the anxiety out. it is the process of learning that is important--her mind being open to new concepts, not afraid of them, shrinking away from them. if she can begin to look at it from that process angle, rather than the very personal ''how did you do?'' angle, the grades will (slowly) improve. this has worked some for mine; her math grades are up from C's last year to B's now, heading toward B+. but more to the point, she is getting more confident in her ability, less anxious about it. good luck. doug


College freshman struggling with test anxiety

April 2012

I have a daughter who is very bright and is a college freshman. She needs some help, though, in acquiring strategies for learning and test taking. In particular, she needs assistance in discovering how she learns best and strategies to maximize the above. She loves her college but is struggling with test anxiety and difficulty in taking college exams. Papers? Well those are not an issue. Any suggestions? I am looking for a cognitive psychologist in the East Bay Area to work with my daughter over the summer. Thanks anonymous


My daughter worked with Dr. Bernstein when she was preparing for the LSAT. She took the test (for a second time) after working with him and felt it made a big difference. http://testsuccesscoach.com/ anon


High school student with severe test anxiety

June 2004

My high school junior experiences severe test anxiety on standardized tests. She doesn't need a SAT subject tutor but does need help in test approach and handling the anxiety of the test environment. She has taken a decent prep course and used different prep books. Any recommendations for someone who could help with this? This is not about getting a few more points on a test - this is drawing-a-blank, melt-down sort of anxiety. I have looked at the previous recommendations and but most are skewed towards subject tutoring.


As a former teacher of test prep, I had students just like your daughter. Two of them benefitted greatly from hypnotherapy. I haven't tried it, but it worked very well for them. Both ended up scoring as well as they did in practice. Good Luck! anne


Test anxiety is just terrible. A few suggestions: Your child may have a learning style difference that demands more time to take tests. Unfortunately this means being tested for a ''learning disability'' and being approved by the school, which is a taxing process. You might ask your medical doctor for a prescription for a betablocker--then I would recommend taking a very, very small amount of the pill under the tongue about 1/2 hour prior to the test.Do a trial first to see if the drug causes drowiness, or doesn't feel right. Your child might benefit from this very small dosage prior to future tests, public speaking or other anxiety-producing events. No regular taking of the drug is necessary. Finally,working out a test taking strategy, not talking to anyone prior to the test and wearing earplugs might help a little.