How to Know if Your Student Has Test Anxiety and What You Can Do to Help

7 min to read
A learning coach and student go over homework.

Have you ever had a moment when you narrowly avoided harm? You probably remember the racing heart, the shakiness, and the intense fear that came with it. Now, imagine feeling those fight or flight symptoms even when there is nothing objectively to be afraid of—like taking a test in school.

Generally, anxiety is a natural emotion; it's your brain's way of responding to stress and warning you about potential danger, but when overwhelming and irrational feelings of intense fear interfere with a student’s academic success, like for those who experience test anxiety, it may be time to intervene. 

But how can you tell if your student’s low test scores are because they may need extra tutoring or because they have test anxiety?

What is Test Anxiety?

Many students feel a bit nervous ahead of a big test, but some people get so stressed it inhibits their success. Students who freeze during exams or suddenly can’t remember anything despite having diligently studied may have test anxiety. 

Dealing with test anxiety can be challenging for students, and it's important for parents to understand what is involved. Test anxiety is a specific type of performance anxiety where students feel intense fear about not doing well on tests. 

Some students with test anxiety may not even know they have test anxiety. They may instead believe that they are bad test takers, or even think they are bad students. They may even experience panic attacks before or during a test without knowing what that is since panic attacks can be hard to identify at first and are often scary for students. 

The good news is, there are strategies available to help manage test anxiety symptoms. 

What are Common Symptoms of Test Anxiety?

It can be hard to understand exactly how your student is feeling. Younger students especially may have a hard time explaining their emotions. As a result, it’s important to watch for symptoms of test anxiety so you can provide your child with the support they need to succeed. 

If you suspect your student has test anxiety, keep an eye out for the following symptoms:

Test Avoidance

Does your student try to avoid school on days they have a test? Perhaps they say they’re sick or take longer than normal getting ready for school. They may even do this unconsciously.

Talk to your student about what’s ahead for the day. Ask them how they are feeling about their test. If they are worried, what are they worried about? Is there anything else on their mind? Ultimately, try to put your student’s nerves at ease by helping them feel confident in their knowledge and abilities. 

Feeling Ill

Your student may say they feel sick to avoid school the morning of a test, but there’s a good chance they truly don’t feel well. Test anxiety can cause chest pains, dizziness, and an upset stomach. Students unfamiliar with how exam anxiety feels may believe they’re actually sick.

If you don’t notice other symptoms – like a fever, runny nose, or cough – dig into what might make your learner feel under the weather. If your child feels ill every time they have a test or stressful activity at school, they likely have test anxiety.

Unexpected Test Scores

If your student often spends dinner talking about everything they learned about in class but gets lower-than-expected grades on all their tests, you’d probably be surprised. In a low-stakes situation, like talking outside of class or even while completing homework, it’s clear they’ve mastered the material. But when the pressure is on during test day, they freeze.

Emotional Signs

Test anxiety can trigger strong emotions on the day of a test. Your student may suddenly act angry or sad before school when they’re normally happy and cheerful. Of course, all children have bad days sometimes, but when you notice that your child is always out of sorts on the day of a test, that’s another strong sign that they experience test anxiety.

An online school student shares her test anxiety struggles with her Learning Coach.

How to Support Learners with Test Anxiety

When your student doesn’t perform to the best of their abilities on tests, there is a possibility test anxiety may be at least part of the issue. If you are concerned about your child's test performance, talk to their teacher or your school counselor first to rule out any other potential behaviors or conditions that may be in the way of student success. But if you suspect test anxiety, there are strategies available to help manage test anxiety symptoms.

Remember: the goal isn’t to get rid of anxiety but to help your student control it better.

Identify Anxiety

Some students may not be sure why they’re feeling anxious before a test. For these students, it can help to name and validate their feelings; there’s nothing wrong with feeling nervous before a test.

As a caregiver, assure them that anxiety is natural and happens to everyone, and help them learn anxiety mitigation techniques like breathing exercises, meditation, or journaling. Some students may benefit from working with a mental health professional to learn additional healthy skills to cope with their anxiety when it comes.

Establish Healthy Habits

Symptoms of test anxiety are worse without a positive baseline when it comes to students’ overall health. Think about it — if you stay up all night and skip breakfast, you’re likely to be even more anxious, on edge, and prone to errors. This is because a lack of sleep can increase cortisol, which contributes to high levels of stress.

You can support your student by making healthy meals during the week and ensuring they get adequate sleep. Establishing a healthy baseline will make it easier for your learner to work through test anxiety and focus on their exam when the big day comes. 

Reach Out to a Tutor

When students are experiencing test anxiety, working with a tutor or taking practice tests can help them to feel more confident and prepared. When working with a tutor, students can address their concerns and go over any concepts they’re struggling to grasp. 

A practice test lets a student go through the motions of an exam with lower stakes. If it goes well, they’re more likely to feel better going into the real test. Meanwhile, if they don’t do as well as they’d hoped, your student will know which areas they need to focus on for improvement. Regardless of the outcome, studies have shown that taking a practice test reduces test anxiety.

As a Learning Coach, you can empower students with the tools they need to be successful. Online school can help students feel more relaxed when it comes to test anxiety since Learning Coaches can identify their anxiety and help them get support. Additionally, taking tests at home, in a familiar environment where students can create a more comfortable learning space, can help to reduce stress during exams. 

The flexibility and access to learning accommodations also at Connections Academy-supported schools can help students approach tests with their best foot forward. Request more information by downloading our free eGuide to learn more about enrolling your student in online school.

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