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How to help your child overcome test anxiety

Carolyn Rahaman is a professional SSAT tutor and contributing writer for Varsity Tutors. She holds a Master's degree in Learning Sciences from Northwestern University.

The strategies provided below can aid your children in overcoming their nerves.

stressed boy studying

Photo credit: Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Test anxiety can haunt even the brightest of students, debilitating them and stifling their progress, thus resulting in a false impression of their capabilities. However, the strategies provided below can aid your children in overcoming their nerves.

Relaxation techniques

When your students' stress levels rise, either during an exam or during preparations for said test, a moment to re-center and refocus can be tremendously useful. Deep breathing (inhale while counting to three, hold for three counts, then exhale for three counts and repeat) directs additional oxygen to the brain and can enhance clarity. Alternatively, students can also close their eyes, clear their mind, count to ten and then continue with a fresh outlook. These methods are key after forgoing a problem or while engaging with an especially frustrating question. Relax, refocus and carry on to the next problem without worrying over the last. Another technique is progressive muscle relaxation, in which your child tenses one set of muscles (such as his or her shoulders) as much as possible, then relaxes those muscles. With practice, children can begin to recognize when they are tense, and develop a habit of relaxing those muscles.

Understand the test itself

The more comfortable children are with the test material, the less likely they will be to allow their anxiety to overcome them during the test. Practice makes perfect, so ensure they complete their homework (including bonus questions in their textbooks), worksheets available on the internet or review questions in their preparation booklets until they can solve the types of questions with which they struggle in their sleep. Ensure that they understand the concepts, and encourage them to request help through teachers, tutors, classmates or family if they require additional support. It is also useful for students to have some foreknowledge of the structure of the exam so there are no unpleasant surprises. Standardized tests don't make a secret of how much time they will allow or whether the format will be multiple choice, short answer or essay. The majority of assessments even have practice materials; students can take a sample test in its entirety. Educators will often reveal the structure of their exams, especially when asked politely.

Reach the heart of the matter

Speak with your child openly and honestly. Why, exactly, are they anxious? What do they believe will happen if they perform poorly? Why are the questions frightening when given as a test rather than homework? This can be an excellent opportunity to talk about your expectations for your children, and their expectations for themselves. Children can often make the assumption that you expect perfection and by not achieving that impossible goal, they're letting you down. Be clear about what you expect from them: a passing grade, a clear effort to study or a solid understanding of the material when it's not a test. Determine what they expect from themselves and what they assume the consequences will be. A poor score on the ACT doesn't mean they will never attend college and will never secure a job. A poor grade on a high school entrance exam does not mean they will not be admitted to high school. A poor grade on an algebra test does not mean you will stop loving them. You may know as much, but ensure that they do as well.

For more tips and strategies to help your student succeed in school, visit www.varsitytutors.com.

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