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Test anxiety symptoms can range from mild to severe, says Dr. Raymond Shred, a child psychologist based in Nanaimo, B.C. An emotional response may include angry, sullen behaviour or depression, while a cognitive response may entail an inability to concentrate or difficulty organizing thoughts. Anxiety may also manifest in a physical response: headaches, stomachaches, excessive sweating, rapid heartbeat or shortness of breath. "Anxiety responses are not noticed by a child until the anxiety is strong enough to worry about," says Dr. Shred.
Why so anxious?
A frequent source of anxiety felt by a student is related to a fear of the unknown, says Dr. Shred. Another factor is the importance that a student attributes to the test, which, even in young kids, can be quite significant, and in older kids, can be even more serious. "The negative impact of anxiety is related to the implications that poor performance may hold for the future: Will I fail? I won't graduate. I won't get a good job. My parents will be so disappointed," observes Dr. Shred.
Janice Grove, an elementary school teacher in Ontario's Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board and mom of two, feels that both parents and teachers may contribute to the pressure kids feel. "Why do they feel like it's a big deal? Parents who want perfection for the child, and teachers who are overly concerned with overall test scores, may be to blame," says Grove. She says that as a parent and a teacher, she encourages her sons and students to just do their best.
Winnie Hunsburger, team leader for research and inquiry, and Vanessa Vanclief, a middle school teacher at The Bishop Strachan School in Toronto, both feel that a good first step is to intentionally uncouple a child's self-worth from his performance in school, making sure he realizes that your love and his value don't depend on performance. If your child ends up with a poor result on a test, make it clear that it doesn't diminish him in your eyes. Let him know you are there to help him practise multiplication tables or history facts to prepare for the next test.
Reducing test anxiety
Prevention is always the best solution, says Dr. Shred, who suggests asking teachers for a general outline of an upcoming test and conduct sample questions with your child, which can take a good degree of the uncertainty out of the test. Here are other ways to help reduce anxiety.
• No cramming until the wee hours. Get a good night's sleep.
• Have all supplies and notes ready to go so you won't be rushed in the morning.
• Read directions carefully. Ask a teacher for help if instructions are not clear.
• Practise breathing exercises. Anxiety response can produce rapid, shallow breathing.
Take deep breaths to relieve tension.
• Stay positive. Know that you have prepared as best as you can.
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