Finals Time! Supporting Children and Teens through the Stress of the Test
Today I am bleary-eyed as I attempt to get my work accomplished after a very late night supporting my son by listening to a speech he has to give – over and over. Now I know that “He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life” (wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson on his essay on Self Reliance). Oh yes, it’s finals time. And whether you have a high schooler with a host of exams, papers and final projects as I do or you have a school-age child attempting to crank out posters, presentations or prepare for tests, this is the final push before the end of the of the school year. Add to the mix that the weather is beginning to change to more sunshine, celebratory activities are happening and we can sense summer just around the bend, and it can become a stressful time for all.
I wrote this article five years ago for a school that told me students were struggling more with the stress of testing than the tests themselves. The strategies still apply. The best, most supportive role we can play as parents tends to be social and emotional in nature. How can we create the calm, focused conditions for the work to take place? How can we offer strategies to help our children learn to deal with stress and anxiety in healthy ways? And how can we cultivate their motivation to work hard and persist in their challenges?
”Mom, everything seems to speed up around me, get louder in my head, and I can’t take my test. I feel scared.” This is how my ten-year-old son described his anxiety during test taking time. But though I know he has felt those feelings in the past, this is the first time he’s been able to articulate it.
In fact, anxiety is experienced differently by every person. Some may get headaches, some tummy aches. Some may feel hot, sweaty or like they are going to faint. But whatever the physical symptoms, frequently they can be accompanied by a host of fears. Yes, the stress of performing well is one of those fears but those worries may lead to a number of others like, “Will everyone make fun of me when I fail?” “Will I learn that I actually don’t have the smarts to do it?” and “Why can’t I think? My head feels like it’s about to explode. What’s wrong with me?”
There is no predicting what particular worries your child will have or develop. But testing time can be a common time of anxiety for parents, teachers and students alike. In fact, because there are pressures on teachers to prepare students for tests, students can pick up on their teacher’s anxiety and feel even more worried experiencing the emotional contagion to which we are all susceptible. So it’s worth looking at ourselves from a bird’s eye view and asking, “How do I talk and act when it’s test-taking preparation time?”
Modeling is a critical teacher so first, take note of your own reactions and anxiety. We can unwittingly contribute to and escalate any fear if we respond to our child’s responsibilities with anxiety. So becoming self-aware and practicing our own self-management over anxiety in those moments is fundamental to helping our children.
If you notice your own worries building, stop and take some deep breaths before responding to your child. I notice that I can hold greater patience in those times of struggle when I put on my “teacher hat,” and, as parents, aren’t we all teachers? All of a sudden, instead of being an annoyed parent, I become an intelligent and empathetic adult whose role is guidance, modeling, facilitation, and support. There are many ways you play a support role, as a parent or an educator, to help your children through this high-pressure time.
In the days before the test…
Be sure you have sharpened pencils (several), erasers and a high protein snack (if allowed) along with a water bottle ready for test-taking day. Your child may want to select her outfit to wear ahead planning for comfort and ease.
If your child’s teachers have given study guides or there are other materials to review, set up a schedule of a time block each day that can be dedicated to studying. Ensure that extra time is allotted (do you need to begin a couple weeks in advance?) in order to well-cover the materials. Give your child a choice (which will help with motivation). You might ask, “When after school, do you feel like studying – right after school or before or after dinner?” Also to help with motivation, work on your own paperwork alongside your child as s/he studies to give the feeling that we are in this together.
Teens are just learning the executive function skills of organizing and planning. Whereas in the earlier years, you might have planned out their study time, now you tend to allow them more independence as they go about their work. Yet, when the work is piled on, it can be a real challenge for them to sort through priorities and figure out how to tackle it all. In these times, you might offer (casually, our emotional investment will push them away for sure!) to support them in planning out how and when they will tackle their studies ensuring they get some brain breaks to keep them fresh.
Connect Physical Symptoms with Stress.
Because the many possible physical symptoms that accompany anxiety can worsen a child’s worries (“Why do I feel so awful? What’s wrong with me?”), it helps to talk about potential signs. You may want to share how your body feels when you are really worried and ask, “How does your body feel?” If your child cannot answer the question, that’s okay. Just your exploration of possible signs of stress in the body may help your child identify it as stress when it arises the next time. And when they identify it, they can then take steps to alleviate it.
Learn and practice deep breathing.
Practice deep breathing together. Practice making the noise of the sea waves while breathing deeply from your diaphragm. Close your eyes with your child and imagine that your anxiety is a fiery flame waiting on a sandy shore. And as you breathe life into the ocean waves, they grow closer and closer to the flame to extinguish it. This is a coping strategy that can be used anywhere at anytime and particularly, on the day of the test!
Brainstorm and practice other coping strategies.
Though breathing will be their best bet in returning to calm, here are a few additional coping strategies that can be paired with breathing while sitting taking a test. Try these together at home first. And fortunately, these can all be done simply and at a school desk without other peers noticing. You might suggest your child:
- Close their eyes.
- Focus on their heartbeat. See if they can begin to slow it down.
- Tighten and release muscles.
- Tighten and release their pencil grip.
- Plant both of their feet firmly on the floor and imagine them on solid ground.
- Raise their hand and ask the teacher if they can walk out in the hallway for fresh air or to get a drink of water.
- Imagine their most calm, serene place (Ask your child where they might want to travel to in their head?).
Don’t worry that your child won’t be focused on the test while trying a coping strategy since their anxiety will prevent them from taking the test anyway. One or some of these could help them to return to the test sooner. Be sure once you talk about these, you try them out! Make it a game. Sit at your kitchen or dining room table and introduce each of these. If you have several children, try it out as a family. Find out which one your child is comfortable with and encourage using it.
Talk through emotions.
Talk through your child’s feelings in an open time slot when you don’t have other pressures. List out all aspects of what they are afraid of. If it’s taking a test, what parts of the taking of a test don’t they like? The time pressure? The silence and focus required? The challenging questions? The fear of failure? What’s the worst thing that could happen to them? Find out all of the aspects of what’s worrying them and be sure to discuss their worst case scenarios. Just acknowledging their worries can bring to light unlikely scenarios they are ruminating on and help them feel understood.
Promote a “Can Do” attitude.
Your attitude about testing will certainly impact your child whether you are considering it will or not. Be sure that you are noticing the positive. Tell stories of your child’s ability to work hard and be resilient in the midst of challenges. Show your confidence that she can learn anything she needs to with time, practice and effort.
Practice brain breaks.
One way you can help with a child or a teen’s studying is to practice brain breaks. If you see an hour passing by as they study, check in and let them know that they begin to become less productive the longer they sit and try and focus. Encourage them to take only five minutes to walk outside and breathe some fresh air, get a drink of water or listen to a favorite tune. Then, they can get back to work feeling renewed.
The night before…
Your child may be tempted to cram more studies in the evening prior to the big test. And a review after school of the materials could be a big help. However, having a healthy dinner and getting to bed on time should be a high priority that evening. Set the scene for a restful night’s sleep by lowering lighting and turning off screens (at least one hour before bedtime). Perhaps take a bath or read a book to help prepare for sleep. Getting a full night’s rest prior to the test is one way to ensure your son or daughter will be ready to give his or her best.
The morning of…
Stick with your consistent morning routine so there are no surprises or power struggles. If you don’t have a consistent routine or feel that it’s a stressful time typically, then part of your own preparation can be working on creating a family responsibility plan so that you begin starting days ready for learning. Check out this short “Smooth Morning Routine” video to learn how.
Focus on giving your child a high protein, low sugar breakfast (oatmeal, cheese stick, low sugar cereal, peanut butter?) since the protein will provide an even source of energy throughout the morning versus the highs and quick lows of sugar. See if you can incorporate a little bit of exercise that morning whether it means a walk to school, a stretch together, or a jog up and down the driveway. When you get your body moving, you get your brain moving and your child will feel more ready to face the challenges ahead.
Most importantly, be sure to say goodbye with love, a big hug, and words of confidence that they can do it!
You got this!