Teacher Professor

March 24, 2013

Testing Anxiety

Filed under: College information,Home Things,Schools — Teacher Professor @ 9:27 pm

Warning- this is long. This is long because I have a lot to say about it. A writer from She Knows Canada (http://www.sheknows.ca) asked me for “some quotes” and I told her that I was afraid that I was going to write a rant. I see a lot of anxious parents at college- and there are so many things I want to tell them.  

I talk a lot about test anxiety to college students- how to breathe through it, how to focus on the positive, and how to manage the rush of anxiety that can block the thinking process. How to focus on how you’re going to answer a question rather than the question itself. But last week, a parent asked me what advice I had for the PARENTS who were waiting for the results of their children’s test scores- or exam results- or grades- or other high-stakes measures that can determine their child’s future. More specifically- “What can I do to help my child with these tests?” And I had to pause for a moment at this challenge of perspective-shifting.

There have always been high-stakes tests that determine a future. Whether the “test” was a dissertation defense that took place between 3-5pm on April 20th that determined whether or not you got a PhD, or taking the PSAT from 8-12 on a lovely day in October that determines National Merit scholarships, or an audition in January that determined whether you were going to Julliard; there have always been moments in life where your whole future determined upon performance for a few hours on a certain day.

This really is similar to the real world. Business contracts are won and lost based on a presentation of 15 minutes. Legal cases are won and lost based on the words that are chosen in the closing arguments. Your ability to get a job is determined on how well you do in an interview. Life’s turning points really do happen in a few minutes.

But here’s the kicker- failure used to be full of potential. If you didn’t get into a college of choice, there was another college available. If you didn’t get the account, you learned, and tried again with another firm. If you failed out of school, you could find another job that didn’t require those skills. Economically, we had a middle class, which meant that if you weren’t at the top of your game, there was a soft landing. There were possibilities there.

These days, parents are very well aware that second chances are few and far between. Good people do go on unemployment because there isn’t another job waiting for them. Smart people do end up working at McDonalds because the job market is so constricted. Your local college will cost a small fortune to attend and the job prospects are limited for those graduates because the only jobs in the area are either only for high-achieving students, or don’t pay well enough to enable your child to move out of your house.

Complicating this pressure is the generation in which many of our young people have been raised. Young college students grew up in a generation that had child care, seat belts and other symbols of care and protection. This generation received trophies merely for showing up to athletic events and there was a great deal of focus on their self-esteem; a focus that has led to record levels of narcissism. They perceived that their wishes could be bought and paid for by their parents, symbolized by bedrooms covered in “Little Princess” pinkness. I see college students bringing in their Disney gear so that they can retain that feeling of being cossetted and loved and protected from that big bad world.

The big bad world is full of pressure. It’s pressure that has grown worse- much worse- over time. It’s why we as adults are the most medicated, the most stressed-out, and the most politically-polarized culture ever. The test really isn’t the pressure- the pressure comes from our culture.

Parents and college faculty often get frustrated with students who appear to be unmotivated and uninterested. This “slacker” attitude is really a response to stress, with the added dollop of helplessness. In other words, kids are unorganized and self-absorbed, not because they don’t care, but because they care too much, but don’t know what to do or where to start. Our stress has become their stress, only they feel powerless to do anything about it.

All of this paints a very bleak picture; it probably doesn’t help to know that high stakes tests really are high stakes. And it certainly doesn’t answer the parent’s question to me- how can we handle the stress ourselves and what can we do? The answer is multi-faceted, but because lists are a helpful strategy (see #3), here are a dozen things that a parent can do to help their child (and themselves) handle high-stakes tests:

  1. Test performance is not something that you can make happen. You can provide guidance, tutors, or incentives, but ultimately, your child is going to perform the way that they are. The key is not what YOU as a parent do, but what your CHILD does. You want your CHILD to have testing strategies, a reward system of their own that they set up and to self-advocate for themselves. YOU cannot go to their teachers and ask what your child needs to do- you need to help your child practice what they’re going to say when THEY come to a teacher to ask what they can do to help learn the material. Don’t teach them the test content.  Teach them how to teach themselves the test content.  You have done your job when your child doesn’t need you.
  2. Understand the difference between Failure and failure. Capital “F” Failure are those things that you cannot fix- ever. Those are few and far between and generally involve life prison sentences. Little “f” failures are those things that you can fix, or bounce back from, or try again. Almost everyone in the Fortune 500 can point to decisions that they made that were wrong. Even Donald Trump has declared bankruptcy over and over again. These people learned from their mistakes and tried something new. There is a wonderful phrase that “insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.” In other words, while high stakes mean limiting of choices, there are still choices. And there is always trying again.
  3. Teach your child to make lists. Lists of what they have to do, what needs to be done first, what projects are due when. Lists connected to calendars are amazing tools-and often, they involve technology- always a plus! I think about college kids appearing uninvolved and listless- which can indeed, be “list-less”.
  4. Encourage your child not to come home. They need to get involved in their school. They will succeed if they want to be there and if they know others there. If they know the counselors and faculty and other students and understand that they all want them to succeed, they will be more engaged in their classes as well. “Involved” generally does not mean partying or hanging out. A group of uninvolved students leads to less involvement. Involved means being active in formally organized activities in which adults are involved as well.
  5. What would they do if money were no object? Play the game of “Life” with them (there’s an app for that!). Have them plan backwards-what do they want to be DOING when they’re 50? 40? The reason we take money out of the equation is that money comes to those who are passionate about what they do. Otherwise, they are earning money to do something for 8-10 hours a day that they hate so that they can have moments of what they really want to do. Also, realize that with the changing world, interests become careers tomorrow that don’t even exist today. If a kid likes to travel but gets airsick, they can make travel apps. If a kid likes basketball but is too short, they can design virtual games. If a kid likes fashion, they can design the next car. There are so many possibilities in this world that require creativity and interest. The future belongs not to the jobs that can be replaced by computers, but to those who can create new ways of doing things.
  6. Give the right kind of feedback. Carol Dweck’s now famous study gave three different types of feedback to kids who had done well on a test. The first were told how smart they were, the second were given a generic “nice job”, and the third group was told how effective their strategies must have been and how their hard work had paid off. In subsequent tests, the group who had been told how smart they were did worse than any other group.  The highest group?- The group who had been praised on their effort. I see it in kids all the time “If I’m so smart, how come this stuff is hard?” Don’t tell kids that they can do it because of innate abilities. Emphasize the amount of work and the type of work that leads to good results.  Celebrate their “hard work”, not their grades.
  7. Enjoy the journey. My husband, a college administrator, asked me to tell parents that if their child is “undecided” about what they want to be, chances are that they will be highly successful in whatever they finally do choose. Yes, they may take an extra year or two to graduate. But studies have found that they have higher rates of actual graduation than the kids who declared their first semester and realized two years in that they really don’t like that choice after all. As someone who got a business degree before I realized that what I really wanted to be was a teacher, I can attest to years of education wasted. Kids who are interested in lots of things can often become our greatest entrepreneurs. If they fail out of a program, perhaps that is simply a signal that they were really supposed to do something else. Adult lives rarely move in straight lines. These high stakes tests can sometimes guide those lines. For years, I had posted on my desk “This life is a test. It is only a test. Had this been a real life, you would have received further instructions about where to go and what to do”. If we grieve what we failed at, we miss what we’re good at.
  8. Model anxiety-reducing behavior. You can talk about how you face challenges and how you deal with the pressure, but you need to show them. Generally, actions such as drinking, over-eating, and calling incessantly are not good models. They will do as you do, not as you say. Which doesn’t mean that you can’t soothe yourself with a lovely mani-pedi every now and then, but it does mean that you have to show them what resilience looks like.
  9. Learn about other role models. Bill Gates dropped out of college. Yes, it was Harvard, but he still didn’t finish. Look at Steve Jobs who was fired from Apple- a company he himself founded. Look at Oprah who grew up with a single mom. There are lots of role models out there and they all faced adversity, shrugged it off, and found a way to move on. Help your child identify a role model that they can learn from.
  10. Help others. Whether it’s tutoring others, planting a garden at a local elementary school, or volunteering at a clinic, by helping others, children can see that their efforts have value. We know that the happiest people are the people who see value in what they do- who understand that their efforts are making the world a better place. Have your kids make the world a better place.
  11. Be in the moment, but keep your eye on the goal. Life is often a series of hoops to jump through. We will all spend a great deal of time doing things that are not what we would rather be doing. When anxiety gets to us, breathing, and being in the moment, allowing it to happen and knowing that it will pass can help kids deal with the anxiety of testing.  Teaching your child that doing these things allows us to get to where we would rather be is a great gift that comes from delayed gratification. There is a wonderful old test in which little kids are told that they have one marshmallow now or get two marshmallows when the adult comes back. Those who could wait an unspecified amount of time for the reward could handle frustrations better. Angela Duckworth, in her studies of successful kids calls finds that persistence is the most important factor between kids who do well and kids who don’t. It’s not ability. It’s grit.
  12. Back off. Yes, it’s a test. Yes, it’s a high stakes test. Yes, their future depends on it. But it’s their future. And they have to make it. What they need is your belief that they are a good person, and your support if they need a soft spot to land. They are going to make their own direction, and they have to want their future more than you do. Listen to them, ask them questions, but they don’t want you steering, they want you cheering.

The original question was “How can we help our children in college through test pressures?”, which relates more to the parents’ anxiety than the children’s- or relates to the parents’ anxiety about their children’s anxiety.    I’m a parent myself.  I know the heartache and stress.  I know that I worry that my child is going to be living in my basement for the rest of his life.  But I also know that I have to keep my anxiety about their lives to myself and I have to be the rock of support for them.  I have to let them make mistakes, and I have to help them learn from their mistakes.  I have to help them face obstacles, and not shield them from the obstacles.

I’ve described a dozen things, but the most important thing really is this:

Ask them to do their best, and love them no matter the results

Thank you, Mother… 


  1. You’re welcome. Well thought out straight talk. Just do your best.

    Sent from my iPhone

    Comment by Jami C Bailey — March 24, 2013 @ 9:43 pm | Reply

  2. Loved it all, and that last paragraph and tagline sum it up beautifully. From a former teacher, bravo!

    Comment by autismmommytherapist — March 25, 2013 @ 1:20 pm | Reply

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  7. A simple, yet effective tool to greatly reduce test anxiety is EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique). I use it with many students and it is a great help.

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