Don’t stress about the tests!

April 12, 2013 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

You’ve heard all the concerns before:

I blank out on tests.

I freeze when the teacher hands me the paper.

What if I don’t do well?

Why do we have to take these stupid tests anyway?

Some students thrive on test stress; others experience intense anxiety that leaves them feeling physically ill -stomachaches, headaches, etc. – and sometimes unable to sleep.

With state standardized tests on the horizon, you can help your child prepare mentally and physically to face the task head-on. These tips and techniques may not completely eliminate your child’s stress, but they are tools that can empower your child to confront this challenge and others they will face in school and beyond.

Chances are you’re familiar with the state standardized tests your child will take in the coming weeks. Students in grades 3-8 will take standardized tests in English language arts and math, and this year the tests have been re-aligned to measure the new Common Core Learning Standards.

Educators and parents have already voiced concern about this year’s test results – even State Education Deputy Commissioner Ken Slentz has predicted that the scores will be lower as the tests reflect the higher performance standards of the Common Core.

The pressure to do well on standardized tests is not lost on children. Even the most prepared student can come a bit unglued when talk of high stakes – such as teacher competence and school success – makes them feel as if they are personally responsible for what’s on the line.

Students don’t need to absorb all the details of the adult conversations around these tests – particularly how it can affect school performance ratings and, potentially, property values. Worrying about whether their performance will negatively impact a favorite teacher will do nothing to help a child relax before a test – but relaxing is one way students can prepare to do their best on test day.

Help your children identify what they are feeling and give them the tools they need so they can learn to manage stress and related emotions, such as self-doubt, anger, frustration and anxiety. Stress-management skills will serve them well as they face anxiety-inducing challenges throughout life.

In addition to managing emotions, your child should understand that physical preparation – such as eating a healthy breakfast and getting enough sleep – can ensure they have enough energy and stamina to think and analyze for a sustained period of time.

Get enough sleep. One study showed that students who got eight hours of sleep the night before a test were three times more likely to answer a question correctly than those who didn’t. Adequate sleep – 8-10 hours per night – helps ensure children have the energy and stamina to make it through the test in top form.

Eat a healthy breakfast. Start the day with a meal that includes complex carbohydrates and protein so energy lasts as long as possible. Eggs, cereal and whole-wheat toast give the brain what it needs to help you think more clearly and much longer compared to high-sugar selections. A healthy breakfast can boost memory and help a child be more alert – a definite recipe for test success!

Exercise. Studies show that physical activity helps improve attention and how fast students process information. Exercise leading up to test day can be excellent mental preparation – not to mention fresh air helps clear the head.

Have fun. Take time to do something fun the night before a big test – whether it’s playing a board game or spending time riding bikes together as a family. Having fun is a helpful distraction from stress.

Write it out. Writing about test stress can be a great way to conquer it. The idea is to get rid of stress by putting it all down on paper. Suggest your child write for 5-10 minutes about test stress. It can be an empowering way to frame positive thoughts about accomplishments as well, such as “I do a good job on math facts homework” or “I did a really good job on the ELA practice test.”

Think positive thoughts. Science shows that thinking positive thoughts can actually help the brain function. Help your child practice this: When you start to feel stressed, take slow, deep breaths and think of something that makes you happy – petting your dog, playing a game with friends, hanging out at the beach in summer – for 10-20 seconds. Remind children that they can use this same technique in the middle of the test if they feel stressed. Taking 20 seconds to relax can help regain focus. (See Psychology Today: Happy Brain, Happy Life.)

Turn the “what-ifs” around. It’s another twist on thinking positive thoughts. Instead of worrying “what if I don’t know the answers to the questions” or “what if I feel stressed all through the test,” encourage your child to rephrase their thoughts in a positive way. “What if I know more than I think I will” or “what if I am calmer than I expect?”

Do the best you can. That’s all that is expected of students – to do the best they can on a test. Let your child know there may be questions they don’t know the answer to or don’t understand. Suggest they skip these questions and move on, coming back later when they can perhaps spend a little more time.

The bottom line is that taking the test can be stressful, invigorating or scary. But with the right approach, children can feel they are mentally and physically ready to handle the challenge.


Busy family schedules sometimes mean breakfast or the morning ride to school is the best time to talk with your child. If you have an important – and potentially emotionally charged – issue to discuss with your child, try to save it until after the big test.

Research shows that getting into an argument before school can negatively impact your child’s whole day – and their test results. That’s because stress interferes with activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that houses our working memory and allows us to reason through a problem and do calculations in our head. This area of the brain can do a lot, but it does have its limits. Taking a test requires a lot of cognitive horsepower – as does stress from an argument with mom or dad – or anybody, for that matter.

Instead of diminishing brainpower, give their brains a boost with positive encouragement. Save the lecture for later.


Nearly two-thirds of school-aged children don’t drink enough water. While this statistic is troublesome enough on its own, recent scientific studies have found that even mild dehydration can negatively affect a child’s cognitive function, making it more difficult to think and focus. Make sure your child drinks plenty of water in the days leading up to the tests, including sending your child to school with a reusable water bottle. [Check with your child’s school to see if water bottles are allowed in the exams.]


Parent Today has prepared a handy fact sheet that includes these stress reducing strategies, along with an overview about the new Common Core Learning Standards. Download “Don’t Stress About the Test” by clicking here.

The New York State Education Department has created a useful website filled with information for parents about Common Core Learning Standards and testing called EngageNY.

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