When it comes to test day, your kids know what they know. The hard part is getting over the anxiety.
With all of the pressure to get into honors classes and top colleges for today’s students — not to mention a slew of upcoming state exams that are required to graduate from high school — this can be a stressful time of year for families. A bad SAT score or bombing an advanced placement test can feel like the end of the world.
Miami-Dade third graders took a state reading test last week that can determine whether they move on to fourth grade, and students in the fourth through tenth grades also face state exams. For older high school students, advanced placement and International Baccalaureate tests are just around the corner.
No matter how old your child is, students and experts weigh in on the best strategies to make sure he or she does well and gets through the next two months without too much worry.
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Use positive psychology
If your child is anxious before taking a test, help him or her visualize success, said psychologist Karen Cassiday, the board president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Ask your child to think about a past situation in which they’ve been successful or overcome difficult circumstances and prompt your child to focus on the things they are grateful for.
“What this does is it helps set a mindset that life is going well, there are good things out there, I can succeed,” Cassiday said.
Maria Malvar, a teacher and trainer at the Miami-Dade school district’s Parent Academy, which supports parental involvement in school, has similar recommendations. “Be positive and just give the atta-boy talk. ‘You do your homework, you’re going to be okay, everything has been taught,’” she said.
Stick with your routine
Any big changes in a child’s routine around testing time could make them more anxious, Cassiday said. “If you really want to help your kids act like this is a regular, normal thing, keep a regular, normal schedule. Don’t make this high-stakes testing the event of the year,” she said.
Of course, making sure your child exercises, eats healthy food and gets a good night’s sleep will also help them succeed, Cassiday said.
Parents should also make sure their child gets to school early on test day, said Malvar. Arriving late can add to the stress and result in the child having to take the exam at a later date.
Don’t study, at least so much
For elementary and middle school students, Cassiday does not recommend any extra studying for standardized tests. “I wouldn’t encourage someone to prepare until they actually have something to prepare for like national merit tests or pre-SATs,” she said.
Older students prepping for exams should aim to study for 45-minute chunks with 5-10 minute breaks in between, Cassiday said. “One of the things we know is that most people, no matter how bright they are, can’t concentrate beyond 45 minutes,” she said.
Benjamin Burstein, a senior at Miami Beach Senior High School, said his strategy for advanced placement tests — which enable students to get college credit for advanced classes — is to start early and go through two review books for each test. Burstein takes extensive notes while he reads the first review book and then goes through the second one more quickly.
“The most important tip is just start early,” Burstein said. “If you’re going to start preparing a week before, there are going to be issues. And then just do a lot of practice questions. It’s a good way to make sure you don’t get really stressed at the end.”
Giovanna Garcia, a senior at John A. Ferguson Senior High School, said she relies on online flash cards to prep for tests and creates a study calendar for herself, designating specific days for specific topics. “I would say the best way to feel less stressed is to know you’re prepared and to have confidence in what you know so make sure you set yourself up for that,” she said.
For students who want to prep for the state exams, the Florida Department of Education offers online practice tests.
Instead of cramming right before the test, make your child laugh. Watch a funny movie together the night before or listen to funny stories on the way to school in the morning. That gives your child’s brain a shot of the neurotransmitter dopamine, Cassiday said, which can improve test performance.
“If you’re looking for how can you set a brain and mind to perform better, those things would be much better rather than doing extra studying,” she said.
A low score isn’t the end of the world
What if your child bombs the test?
“The first thing I would suggest parents do is check their own anxiety,” Cassiday said. “Parents in particular can get very worried about wanting their child to do well, wanting them to have opportunities for getting into college or getting into special programs for high school. They need to remember this is their child’s life, not theirs, and one of the most important things a human being can learn is how to recover from a mistake or not getting the things they want.”
Renny Neyra, the director of Miami-Dade’s Parent Academy, said the school district tries to make sure parents know there are alternatives if a child doesn’t do well on the third grade state reading exam, which students need to pass to move on to fourth grade.
Third graders who don’t pass the test can instead use scores from a reading assessment administered throughout the spring semester, one passage at a time, to qualify for fourth grade.
“There’s a lot of fear regarding ‘What happens if my child doesn’t pass?’” Neyra said. “We clear all that up. We speak about the safeguards that are in place.”
If your child is still anxious about taking tests after trying these strategies, that could be a sign of more serious anxiety issues. A child who continually asks his or her parents if they will do well on the test, or who can’t seem to enjoy their hobbies because of exam worries could have test anxiety, Cassiday said.
“When someone is choosing to study over having fun, something is going wrong in a pre-teen or a child or a teenager,” she said. Another sign, particularly for younger children, is having a meltdown or tantrum right before or after taking a test. In this case, parents might want to consider talking to a psychologist or a school counselor. There are also resources available on the Anxiety and Depression Association of America website.
In general, though, students and experts say the most important thing for getting through testing season is taking a deep breath and putting everything in perspective. “Your life doesn’t depend on whatever score you get on the test and when you think about it that way it’s less daunting,” Garcia said.