The sudden and intense bodily sensations rushing through my body right before I had to present in front of hundreds of people took over my brain to the point that I had no idea why I was standing there. I felt my heart beating fast as if I was falling from a cliff, my hands were sweaty, my breath was shallow, and my feet and legs felt as if the earth was giving up under me. As an adult, I understood this experience as a lack of confidence in my endless hours of preparation to deliver the speech. As a child, the same sensations arose during school test periods, and I believed that there was something wrong with me; my embarrassment did not allow me to talk about it with anyone, assuming I was the only one in the world going through this.
Looking back, I had no clue what was happening to me or the underlying reasons behind it. Today I know I was suffering from "test anxiety" or "performance anxiety".
I am convinced that in today's world, most children and teens suffer from some type of anxiety. Feeling nervous may be expected and even healthy at times, as long as we learn how to shift to a better state of mind. I explain to kids that testing is necessary, as a way for teachers to measure their performance, understand their proficiency and the areas where they need to improve.
Every time we do testing visualization exercises with kids Kinder through 12 grades, we get the same response over and over again. We ask them first to close their eyes and imagine as if it was testing day, how they wake up on the morning of their test, the breakfast they may eat, and how they may already be feeling butterflies in their bellies, or sweaty hands, or headaches and so on. As they continue to imagine the ride to school, the moment they walk in class, they sit on their chairs and find the test on top of the desk while feeling a strong urge to go to the bathroom. "By then, kids are already feeling anxious." We then ask them to open their eyes and share how their mind and body felt during the visualization process. Most kids admit that they felt uncomfortable physical sensations and emotions.
I explain to kids that feeling anxious is normal, but allowing the fears and worry to take over the brain and quickly sending us to a "fight and flight” response is what we need to avoid. By remaining in the reactive part of our brain, one does not have access to the smart part of our brain, making it impossible to access memory or information recently stored and allowing us to perform well during the exam.
It is uplifting to observe kids' reactions when they understand what "test anxiety" is and that they can learn how to manage it. They get fascinated when they find out how their brain works under stress or during mindfulness practice. It is crucial to explain to kids that anxiety will not go away, but recognizing that its there will allow them to put in place the right tools to manage it.
Building good study habits, including getting prepared for the test, will minimize anxiety. Incorporating self-regulation practices into their daily lives, including affirmations as part of their language, is necessary because they will build confidence and believe in themselves. It is not about being the best, but for each child to be provided the tools to do their best.
As a parent, it can be hard to know how to handle anxiety during testing time. Here are some tips you can do at home:
Remind them that feeling anxious is a common emotion, and it happens to all of us.
Maybe they can share with you what physical sensations they are feeling. The child may already be complaining about not sleeping well or loss of appetite, or belly aches. The more kids talk about it, the better they will feel.
Reinforce the fact that the reason why they are feeling scared, worry or anxious is because they want to perform well.
Encourage them to take 5-minute breaks in between their studies.
Ideally, the break should include movement and breathing (see some suggestions below).
Give them a time for themselves to do their favorite activity.
Remind them that sleeping and eating well is always important, but during testing, time is even more important.
Maybe you can build a habit first thing in the morning called "affirmations time," you can say something like "I am calm today," "I am relaxed today," "I will do my best today," "I am strong"….." I am a leader."
Here are some suggestions for movement and breathing during mini breaks:
10 jumping jacks - going around the chair.
Going up and down the stair 15 times (if you have stairs).
Five half sun salutations: 1) stretching arms up, looking at their fingers 2) folding down to touch their toes 3) stretching their spine while looking forward 4) coming back up while stretching arms as they look at their hands again.
Using their index and middle finger to tap the face, head, neck, arms, hands, chest, belly, and legs.
Chopping breath: 1) standing with open legs 2) stretching arms up 3) interlacing the hands 4) making them into fists 5) quickly folding down and creating a movement with arms as if you were chopping wood while breathing out and mouth open, while sighting out loudly.
Conclusively, our goal should be to help kids accept that feeling a little nervous before exams is ok and that they have the power to manage it. At the same time, we, as parents or caretakers, offer the best possible supportive environment.