Top 3 Tips to Help Your Child Manage Test Anxiety

This guest post is written by Dr. Aviva Bass-Huh, a licensed clinical psychologist in Boulder, CO.

We all want our children to do well at school and it can be frustrating when you watch your child show up and do the work but then not test well. For many students, test anxiety hinders their ability to perform. When children are anxious, it affects how they think, what they feel in their bodies and what they do. These three parts interact, and a change in one influences the others.

For example, just hearing about an upcoming test can trigger the fear of failure and paralyzing self-doubt in a child. If the student thinks they’ll get a bad grade, they may become nauseous and start to fidget. As a result, their anxiety escalates further, and the child feels like all the material they’ve learned has slipped out of their mind, preventing their ability to perform well on the test.

This cycle is fairly common. Fortunately, there are some simple steps students can take to manage their test anxiety. Here’s the top three ways your child can harness their anxiety and use it to perform better on exams:

Understand the Benefits of Anxiety

Test anxiety isn’t bad or dangerous, even though it may sometimes feel that way. In fact, research suggests that anxiety can actually enhance performance. During a 2010 study conducted by Jamieson, Mendes, Blackstock and Schmader, students were told to remind themselves that their “nervous energy” could help them perform better. The students who were given this brief suggestion about their anxiety scored higher on their tests than the students who didn’t get this information.

Therefore, just because a child’s feeling anxious about a test, doesn’t mean they’ll do poorly. Fear, anxiety and excitement can also help them perform better.

Explain to your child that it’s natural to feel anxious and being nervous is actually a good thing! Reframing the emotion of test anxiety as excitement, instead of worry, can change your child’s interpretation of anxiety from something that’s a threat to something that’s helpful!

Write It Out & Let It Go

When children are nervous, their natural inclination is to use avoidance strategies like distraction or procrastination. While that may make them feel better in the short term, this prevents them from learning how to cope with the scary feelings and negative thoughts associated with test taking.

Instead of avoiding their feelings, have your child pay attention to the thoughts, physical sensations and behaviors that arise each time they start to worry about an upcoming test.

Encourage them to write down these thoughts and feelings. Once they’ve gotten it all out on paper, tear it up and throw it away.

Test Anxiety Example:

Day Trigger Thoughts Feelings Behaviors
Monday Teacher reminded us of LA test next week I’ll never be able to learn everything in time. Everyone will do better than me. Heart racing, stomach hurting Tapping my foot. Urge to leave the classroom.

Researchers found that high anxiety students who wrote about their anxiety just before a test scored better compared to students who didn’t do a writing exercise, wrote about an unrelated unemotional event, or wrote about a topic that would be covered on the exam.

Writing down their negative thoughts about the test and discarding them allows children to create distance from the experience instead of feeling caught up in it.

Reinforce this practice by having your child do this exercise every day for a week leading up to the test as well as 10 minutes before a test.

Teach Them The Art of Floating

If your child struggles to push away negative thoughts and feeling when they start to get worked up, it will only make the experience worse next time. Instead, if a child can learn to observe their emotions and perceive their value, the intensity of their test anxiety will decrease over time.

It’s a little bit like learning to float – a child has to get their body in the right position and then…let go and do nothing. If a child tries to float by moving their arms or squirming, they’ll sink.

Think about helping your child overcome anxiety this way. They need to let go and embrace the thoughts and feelings that come up instead of trying to make them go away. When a child floats through the anxiety and lets the thoughts and sensations pass on their own, they’ll make much better progress.


About Aviva Bass-Huh

Dr. Aviva Bass-Huh is a licensed clinical psychologist in Boulder, CO.  She does Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to help parents and their anxious, challenging, moody children. For more information, go to www.parentingmadepleasant.com or call 720-938-3423.

About Skills 4 Life:

Skills 4 Life Pediatric Occupational Therapy offers a broad range of pediatric occupational therapy services in the Boulder & Denver area to help your child master age-appropriate developmental skills, become more independent, increase academic success & develop confidence. The experts at Skills 4 Life specialize in handwriting, keyboarding & executive function coaching, but also work with children on social & emotional learning, motor skills, self-regulation strategies & activities of daily living. Skills 4 Life Pediatric Occupational Therapy offers your child a safe, compassionate environment to learn the critical skills they need to be successful. Learn more about our team & services at www.skills4lifeot.com, or you can contact our office by email at karina@skills4lifeot.com or by phone at 303.351.1828 for a free consultation.