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Helping Children with Testing and Other School Anxieties

School can create a number of stressors and pressures on elementary-aged children, from navigating the social world without direct support from their parents to managing anxiety or feelings around learning, performance, competition, and grades. This month, we will discuss how parents can support their child or children leading up to and during testing or other high-stress periods, as well as how they can judge if a child’s school-related anxiety is excessive or interfering with their ability to demonstrate their true capacities.

Ongoing Conversations about School Life

One way to have a sense of the ups and downs of your child’s school life is to keep discussions about school ongoing as a part of your regular routine. This includes being open and available to listen and talk about a range of experiences, from those that were fun and rewarding to those that were aggravating or frustrating. Not all negative experiences need to be fixed or reframed so that one sees the silver lining; sometimes people – even children – just need to vent! Knowing that the door to discussions about positive and negative experiences or feelings is always open is often enough for a child to feel like he or she can talk about some of the hurdles encountered in school.

Explaining the Purpose of Testing

The true purpose of the test can become lost in the focus on results as teachers prepare their students to perform well on standardized tests. Helping children understand that testing is merely one way for a school to measure what their students are learning – and figure out what needs to be taught more – is one way to potentially alleviate test-taking anxiety.

Recognizing Anxiety

Some children may be reluctant to talk about topics that are uncomfortable to them. They may wish to avoid the discomfort or they may not know how to put words to their feelings. Other children may develop symptoms (i.e., behaviors that are new or uncharacteristic) around high-pressure times. Examples include attempting to avoid school or complaining about physical ailments. Helping children recognize their own ways of expressing their anxiety (including expressing it by trying to avoid it) can be beneficial not only in the realm of school-related anxiety, but in helping children understand and express their feelings in general. Without discounting the symptoms, parents can gently and sensitively bring this to a child’s attention by commenting that symptoms such as stomachaches seem to happen around more stressful times and connecting that there may be some nervous feelings about whatever the current stressor may be.

When to Seek Help

For some children, school-related anxiety is persistent. In such cases, parents may notice that their child’s true intellectual capacities (or social capacities) are not being reflected in the work he or she is producing at school. Some children may also show signs of struggling with peer relationships or may exhibit behaviors in school that indicate that they are under an amount of stress that they are not able to manage or control independently. A full assessment of a child’s social and emotional development from a qualified mental health professional can be helpful in developing the necessary supports for the child in their school environment.

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