Losing sleep over standardized tests used to be something college-bound teenagers did. Now kids as young as 8 get nervous. “Brian has good grades, but last year he got so stressed out by the idea of having a three-hour state test that he actually ran out of the class in the middle of it to throw up,” recalls Sharon Isaacs (not her real name), of Teaneck, NJ. The fourth-grader recovered in time to finish, but it’s hard to do your best when you’re that upset.
All this agita stems from a federal law requiring public schools to give their students in grades three through eight tests in math and English to make sure they’re reaching certain educational benchmarks. But the tests aren’t only used to gauge student achievement. “They can also determine funding for schools, which teachers need to be fired, and even whether a failing school will be closed down,” explains Timothy Slekar, Ph.D., a professor of education at Penn State University.
With the school’s future riding on the results, it’s no surprise that there’s a culture of anxiety in the weeks before the exams, says Wendy Grolnick, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Clark University in Worcester, MA, and author of Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids. “It can trickle down from the administration to the teachers to the parents and the kids,” she says. And while some students don’t think twice about test days, others get seriously rattled. The pressure can affect their scores, and many kids complain about headaches, chest pains, and stomachaches, says Michelle L. Bailey, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at Duke University School of Medicine.
Sound like your kid? These tips can soothe test-day jitters and help every child feel calmer, sleep better, and perform her best on the big day — and on every quiz in between.
- Check your own anxiety. “Parents feel intense pressure to have their kids succeed,” Grolnick says. “It’s natural — you love your child and want him to have every opportunity.” Assess your motives and ease your own nerves by repeating this mantra: “I’m the antidote for the pressure rather than the cause.”
- Put it in perspective. To gauge your child’s state of mind, ask how she’s feeling about the test, suggests Dr. Bailey. If she’s fine, move on. But if she’s jittery, say, ‘"This is just a way to see if the kids in your school are learning everything they need to know.” You can also point out that the test score is just a small piece that makes up who she is, along with her sense of humor and drawing chops.
- Tweak bedtime. For your child to get a full night’s sleep the night before the test, he has to have a good routine going now. If not, “make sure homework gets done right after school, and move dinner to an earlier time,” says Grolnick.
The Week Before:
- Pump up the energy. Add some fun physical activities, like a family bike ride in the late afternoon or some drop-in karate classes. They’ll help your child snooze better at night. Plus, she’ll produce feel-good endorphins that can relieve stress and boost positive energy, notes Dr. Bailey.
- Relax and have fun. Cramming vocab or practicing division problems isn’t going to calm your kid down — or even help him do better, says Dr. Bailey. Instead, plan something that will take everyone’s mind off the test, like family game night or a pizza party. A healthy snack an hour before bedtime and a soothing bath will help him nod off.
- Fill her up. Start the day off right by serving up a morning meal of complex carbs and protein, says Dr. Bailey. Greek yogurt with fresh (or frozen) fruit and honey or oatmeal with nuts are way better than sugary cereals, which can just cause your child to crash when she needs energy the most.
- Be on time. Kids can get anxious about arriving late and then having to rush to prepare for the test, so set the alarm ten minutes early to get everyone out the door without last-minute chaos.
- Connect with a friend or teacher. Talking about pre-test jitters with a teacher or a close pal can be a good way to chill. “Not only will it make your child feel less isolated, but it’ll release some of the nerves he may have,” says Dr. Bailey.
- Remind her to put down the pencil and breathe. “When kids are anxious, they forget to breathe,” says Dr. Bailey. If your child starts to panic or comes to a question that trips her up, she can close her eyes and take three deep breaths. It’ll help her be calmer and more confident when she focuses again. If she still doesn’t know the answer, she can give it her best guess and move on. After all, these tests happen only once a year, but learning to dial down stress is a skill kids can use every day.