Managing Test Anxiety in Today's High Stakes Testing Era

04/30/2015 04:10 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2015

Opt out.





The topic of "opting out" of testing came up at my dinner table the other night. My kids were talking about "The Test" and I mentioned that many of my clients were emailing me and asking my opinion about whether they should have their children "opt out" of the newest standardized test.

I nearly fell out of my chair when, in perfect harmony, my kids said, "The test doesn't matter for our grades"..."It's really just to test how good the teachers are teaching"... "It really doesn't matter... right Mom and Dad?"

Long pause.

"Right!" I quickly responded.

They looked at my wife and me closely for a moment to confirm that I really meant what I was saying and then, thankfully, the dinner conversation moved on to another topic.

Similar scenarios are happening every night across America.

Here's our story: My kids, now 15, 13, and 11, have been raised on STAR testing. My children, like many of the children I know and work that have learning and processing challenges, find the process of taking tests -- particularly long tests with lots of work and words -- is hard and creates massive worry and anxiety. As the brief conversation about opting out was occurring the other night, I had flashbacks of recurring conversations the night before the tests, and the day of the tests where my wife and I said, "The test doesn't matter for your grades"..."This really is to test how good the teachers are so the state will give money to your school"... "It really doesn't matter."

These have been our mantras for years. Were they meant to take on the system and undermine our children's teachers? No. Were these words ones every parent will agree with? No.

These statements were said over and over to help our children manage their test anxiety and the messages they were getting about how important these tests were for their future. Our messages were meant to counter the fear-based messages about the importance of the tests they were receiving (and feeling) at school that was causing my own kids to have stomachaches, emotional meltdowns, and refusing to go to school on test days.

School worry and test worry are common. There has become an increased focus on grades, GPAs, and a fear-based mentality that kids will not get into a good college unless they have a 4.6 GPA. Sadly, this fearful mentality has trickled down all the way to elementary school today!

What is going on? And what should parents do?

In a nutshell, we feel anxious when we think worrisome thoughts like, "I am going to fail... my future depends on this test... everyone will think I am stupid if I don't get an A... my parents will be mad at me if I don't get the highest grade... my teacher will be fired if our class doesn't do well..." These fear-based thoughts trigger our amygdala (our fear center) to send out the "fight" or "flight" command so we can "survive" the situation by producing massive amounts of adrenaline to fight or run from our predator. As a result, parts of our body shut down for this survival response. Blood leaves our brain and stomach to go to our arms and legs -- to fight or run. As a result, we feel light headed, have headaches, get dizzy, have stomachaches, get nauseous, and have a "pit" in our stomachs. These sensations are not helpful in most aspects of life (except when we are in a true survival situation), and certainly not when taking tests.

Teaching our children to understand who the "worry monster" is and how he works on us, and bullies us has been a central part of our parenting. We have found that teaching our children to question their thinking, look for alternative explanations, and coming up with new thinking that is more realistic ("the test really isn't a big deal") is not only helping them fight and manage their worry, but is also helping them to learn to problem-solve and be resilient in the face of adversity. Learning to manage our emotions and problem-solve in tough situations is critical for navigating life.

High stakes testing, and the anxiety that often accompanies it is just another opportunity to teach our children how to fight worry and problem-solve. Give your child another perspective to consider. This test is practice for taking tests when they are older like the SATs and ACTs. Tell them to focus on "doing your best." Practice deep breathing so they can learn to find a state of calm and slow down their heart rate when they are nervous.

Or like we did -- repeat the same mantra over and over.

I was smiling inside as I heard my kids put this latest test in perspective. It really doesn't matter for their future and will not define them. Knowing this has allowed them to avoid worry (at least about this year's test!) and move on to the next life experience and challenge which is always around the corner. Just like the next test.