Test anxiety in students

Test anxiety in students is something I am quite familiar with. Not only do I see these children every day in my practice, but I have experienced it myself.

My own Experience

When I was in fourth grade, I can remember getting physically sick before a math test. In fact, just thinking about that test could bring about symptoms of nausea, a headache, dizziness and thirst. Accompanying these physical symptoms was a fear that I would fail, that I would get bad grades, that my teachers would not like me and my parents would be ashamed of me. In fact, many of the missed answers I knew, but was so nervous I could not remember.


I don’t think I ever told anyone about this and I don’t think anyone noticed. But this lasted well into my sophomore year of college before I was able to recognize what it was and where it came from. I continued to receive good grades throughout school and college because I was able to cope with this anxiety.

Unfortunately test anxiety in students does not always result in a happy ending. Students with test anxiety may go on to conclude that they are unable to be academically successful.

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Diagnosing Test Anxiety

Test anxiety in students does not have a separate category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual(DSM IV) so it is difficult to know when it is normal versus abnormal. Shouldn’t everyone should feel a measure of anxiety when taking a test and being evaluated academically? This is true to some extent. Many parents may have more concern if a child or teen did not have test anxiety. Certainly children and teens without academic motivation are also commonly in my practice. Interestingly, these children may also be suffering from test anxiety. Children who have experienced failure because of poor study skills, learning disabilities or mental health conditions such as depression and adhd ( which impair attention) may react by avoiding test taking or becoming apathetic in order to deal with their anxiety. Click here to learn more about the causes of test anxiety.

How do we know when it Requires Treatment?

If test anxiety interferes in a child or adults ability to function in the settings they need to be successful, than I consider that a sign that some form of treatment is required. However, the first step to getting help for a child or teen with text anxiety is identifying it.

How to recognize test anxiety in students or in your child

If you are a parent of a child who you believe has test anxiety , the best way to pick it up is to be aware of your child’s school assignments, school behaviors and concerns about school. It is important to keep regular contact with your child’s teachers, be aware of when tests are coming up and what other school projects may be assigned. Observe your child’s behavior around test time, talk with your child about their confidence level and concerns. Younger children may exhibit more physiological symptoms, for example , they may become sick to their stomach or feel ill during test taking days. Older children may be able to describe the actual thoughts and feelings they have around test taking time.

What Kind of Treatment is Used for Overcoming Test Anxiety?

Treatment of test anxiety in students really depends on the cause. If for example the cause is that the child has a learning disability is undetected or unrecognized in the test taking process, than the treatment for that particular child would involve testing and developing an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP).

For the group of students who experience test anxiety as a phobia, treatment includes systematic desensitization. This consists of the child imagining a serious of events ranked in order of least to most distressing and pairing physical and mental relaxation with those events.

Other treatment techniques include examining the child’s thoughts that contribute to the anxiety and challenging them, Children can also be taught to replace negative and unrealistic thoughts with more positive thoughts or self affirmations . Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, positive imagery, and progressive muscle relation can be taught to children to assist them in regulating their physiological response.

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