Helping Kids Test Their Best

by Christa Melnyk Hines

By third grade, most kids have experienced testing on some level, ranging from spelling and math tests in class to standardized state exams. For some students testing is a breeze while for others, performance anxiety can hijack their ability to concentrate and do well. How can we best set our kids up for test success?

Cover the basics. Before a big test day, don’t underestimate the power of a good night’s sleep and a well-balanced breakfast. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), students who skip breakfast are less alert, less focused, and have more difficulty problem-solving.

Avoid foods high in refined sugars. Instead choose unprocessed foods like whole grains, eggs, nuts, yogurt, and fresh fruits and veggies. According to Harvard Medical School, antioxidant foods like berries and apples could even help reduce anxiety.

Check in with your student. “Just acknowledging that a test is coming up and asking how our kids feel about it is a good opening conversation to have,” says Alicia Jackson, a school counselor.

If your child expresses worry, ask them what their biggest worry is and why. By pinning down the source of their anxiety, you can help them begin to problem solve. For example, if they are worried about the math portion of the test, contact the teacher or school counselor for ideas that can help your student feel more confident and prepared.

Reduce uncertainty. “Test anxiety is such a real issue for students. In order for students to do their best, we want them to remain calm and feel confident about the test,” says school counselor Dr. Jermaine Wilson. “Confidence in taking the test is about 50 percent of the battle.”

Familiarity with the test structure can make a big difference in a student’s level of confidence. Review test sample questions with them. Often, students will realize how much they already know. Also, take advantage of any free resources your school offers like ACT, SAT and Advanced Placement (AP) practice tests.

Tap a tutor. A good tutor can help strengthen your student’s skills in areas where they struggle. Wilson, who is a former ACT prep teacher, recommends taking the ACT or SAT cold, prior to tutoring, to identify which portions of the test they should focus on.

Tutoring can also help students learn tips to narrow down answers on multiple choice tests, practice writing prompts, and manage their time well by answering easy questions before tackling harder ones.

Avoid unnecessary pressure. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), 51 percent of universities rate college entrance exams as considerably important when considering incoming freshmen. While that may be so, pressuring our kids to reach specific test results inadvertently drives up their anxiety and can actually hurt their scores in the long run.

“It affects their self-concept. Sometimes students will say ‘okay, my parent doesn’t think I’m up to standard or doesn’t love me as much if I don’t get a certain score.’ With that level of anxiety and the diminishing of self-concept, research shows over time that their test scores will go down,” Wilson says.

Positive self-talk. Nothing spooks success like telling yourself that you’re stupid or that you can’t do something. Help your kids transform negative thought patterns like “I can’t do this” to thoughts like “I don’t know how to do this yet.” This helps kids understand that learning is a trial and error process.

Encourage your child to write a note to themselves and stick it in their binder to read before a test, Jackson suggests. They might write: “I’ve studied. I can do this. I’m going to try my best.”

You can help reinforce self-confidence too, by writing a note to your child and tucking it into their lunch box or backpack the morning of a test.

Share your stories. Did you struggle with anxiety-provoking or stressful test situations as a student? What happened? Don’t just tell your kids about the times you succeeded. Tell them about those times when things didn’t go so well-and what you learned from those experiences. They’ll realize that no one is immune to setbacks.

“You can learn a lot from failure or not making a team or not scoring as high on a test as you want to. Hopefully, you reflect. The power of reflection after a test is important,” Jackson says.

Focus on what matters. By 8th grade, start talking with your kids about what they hope to do after high school, weighing their strengths and interests. Not every student needs to take the ACT or SAT.

Students who plan to enter the military will need to prep for the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery). Vocational or technical schools may not require an entrance exam at all.

Your teen should contact their high school guidance counselor to find out what steps they should take to prepare for their future and what school programs and resources are available to support them in their endeavors.

Celebrate success. No matter what the outcome of the test, zero in what went well. Even a passing grade on an exam in a subject your child struggles with is cause for celebration.

“You can still learn from the negative or the uncomfortable, but trying to find something positive is important because then that encourages kids to want to grow and learn,” Jackson says.

Even if your student isn’t sure how they did or thinks they bombed the test, ask them what they do feel good about. Maybe they completed the entire test, which has traditionally been their biggest hurdle. Perhaps they’re proud of how much they studied. Or maybe they got to the test location on time.

“One test does not define who you are as a person,” Jackson says. “I think celebrating any kind of success is going help our kids want to feel that again.”


Students as young as pre-k can learn to manage anxiety using mindfulness techniques. Try “box breathing,” which can be done anywhere, anytime to calm racing thoughts and panic. The four-second, four-step process is simple to remember:

• Take a deep breath, pulling the breath in through your nose for four seconds

• Hold the breath for four seconds

• Breathe out for four seconds

• Wait four seconds and try it again

Source: Alicia Jackson

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