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Test Anxiety – How Can We Help?

“What? I don’t know this one! I didn’t study it. The very first question and I don’t know the answer! And it’s happening again… my heart’s racing… I’m sweating so much I can’t hold my pencil…can’t catch my breath. I’m going to fail, I’ll never graduate, I’ll never get into college. My parents are going to be ashamed of me. I just need to focus… I can’t focus. Okay, I’ll just guess and go on to the next question. No! I don’t remember this, either! I know I studied it. Why can’t I remember? I’m no good. I’m a failure. What’s the point? I’m just going to stop trying and I’ll fail. I’ll just guess at all the other questions, too. Probably won’t know them, anyway. I’ll never amount to anything. I wish I could at least catch my breath. I just want to get out of here.”

If that narrative or something similar has ever played out in your head, you’re in the company of 38% of U.S. students who also struggle with test anxiety. That means more than three out of ten students face similar symptoms before, during, and/or after taking a test. From the debilitating physiological symptoms – rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, out-of-control breathing, stiffening jaw, etc. – to the nagging psychological symptoms, such as thought-consuming and self-disparaging, negative self-talk – the impact of not addressing test anxiety can be quite damaging to a child or an adolescent. Many students struggle with finding and applying the best techniques to prevent or counter the symptoms of anxiety, so this article is meant to provide insights on how to be the best test-taker possible, especially if you’ve ever struggled with testing before.

Before we move on to the tips, you should know that the physiological symptoms you feel during a testing or performing situation can actually be beneficial – they are your body’s way of telling you to focus and ensuring you give your best performance. For example, rapid breathing is your body’s way of getting more oxygen to your blood so that your senses are heightened and you can react more quickly to a challenge. [6] If you’re able to recognize the physiological sensations and then use your self-talk to make a positive statement about them, you may not get stuck in the thought tornado of labeling what your body is doing as damaging. “My heart rate’s increasing. That’s great because now my blood’s circulating faster so I can respond faster. I’ll take some calming, deep breaths so I can give my body the oxygen it needs and  my heartbeat can settle down.”

Similarly, there has been research that resulted in the concept known as “facilitating anxiety” that actually helps you get motivated to perform. Facilitating anxiety is meant to help you use your thoughts to predict potential outcomes accurately so you make the best choice, because some of the worried thoughts you may have are in fact true statements. For example, the thought “I’ll fail the class if I don’t take the exam, since it’s worth half my grade” is true because, yes, you will actually fail the class if you don’t show up to take the final exam, but the thought “I will never amount to anything if I don’t get an A on this exam” is untrue because one A on an exam does not predict overall outcomes for the rest of your life. Learning how to distinguish between worried thoughts that facilitate motivation and self-disparaging thoughts that damage your mental wellbeing is an important skill to have during a test.

Now let’s add some other skills you can use before, during, and after taking a test.

Fighting test anxiety – what can students do?

Music therapy. Yes, you can actually help yourself through listening to your favorite music! Whether it’s the newest pop releases or heavy metal, the music you prefer listening to in your free time works miracles to calm you down before a big test. If concentration allows, you can even listen to it as you’re studying, especially if the music is instrumental, so lyrics won’t distract you. If you notice that your heartbeat hasn’t lowered after listening to your favorite music, don’t worry – music tends to raise the heartbeat while calming your thoughts (the worry dimension of your anxiety). [1]

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). You can start to become familiar with progressive muscle relaxation through this video. PMR allows you to work primarily on the physiological symptoms, but not only that. Self-defeating thoughts can be caused, in part, by physiological symptoms, because the body and mind are connected; calming the body will, in turn, calm your mind, and allow you to think more clearly about the situation at hand. These exercises relax your muscles, deepen your breathing, and calm your heartbeat. You’ll learn to systematically tense and then relax your muscles while breathing deeply and getting to a “happy place”. [2]

Work on your mistakes.  Making mistakes is the only way for us to actually learn something and become better at what we do. So if one of your dominant anxieties is “I’ll fail again”, ask your teacher to let you see your previous test. Explain you’d like to look at what you got wrong so you can work on it. Once you see which part of the test is the issue, you can sit down and work carefully on learning those things – alone, or with a classmate who can help you. You can also ask your parents if it’s something you think they’d be good at explaining. [3]

Another thing you can try is to create a test-like situation as you’re studying. One of the scariest things about tests is that they’re full of things that are unknown to you and that you’re not used to. The simple act of entering the classroom on a test day can be enough to send your heartbeat into overdrive. To make this a little bit easier for you, why don’t you create a test-like situation at home while you’re studying? Make your desk look like a school desk by getting rid of your phone and other distractions you won’t find in a classroom. You can even schedule an alarm to ring at the end of the “class”, both to allow yourself to rest a bit and to recreate the school atmosphere as best you can.

Fighting test anxiety – what can parents do?

Offer them incentives. One of the best things you can do to ease your children’s test anxiety is to offer them some sort of reward if they do well on a test. Their thoughts are telling them that they can only expect a bad outcome after the test, so having something good to look forward to might make the whole experience less stressful for them. This reward works best if it’s something that means a lot to them – it can be as simple as praise, or it can be a material reward, depending on what you believe works best for them. [4]

You can also take the time to create a Plan B with them, in case the test doesn’t go as well as they’d like. This will show them that it’s not the end of the world if everything doesn’t go perfectly!

Quiz them. Students themselves can create an atmosphere that resembles that of the classroom, but you can help by playing the teacher. By quizzing them, you’re accomplishing two things: you’re helping them learn what they need for the test and you’re also making them more resistant to the test situation itself. You can combine these two by offering them a small reward if they do the practice test well – but be careful: if you can do it without becoming adversarial, then it’s a good thing to try.

These exercises and tips are something you can do, and should make a student feel better and more at ease! But if you feel as though you need more guidance on this matter, please contact us to set up a consultation with one of our coaches. Parents and students can also sign up for our FREE WEBINAR on test preparation and learn how to improve time-management and eliminate test anxiety!

References:

  1. Davis, W. B. & Thaut, M. H. (1989). The Influence of Preferred Relaxing Music on Measures of State Anxiety, Relaxation, and Physiological Responses. Journal of Music Therapy, XXVI (4), pp. 168-187.
  1. Conrad, A. & Roth, W. T. (2007). Muscle Relaxation Therapy for Anxiety Disorders: It Works But How? Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 21, pp. 243-264
  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-9cqaRJMP4
  1. Hembree, R. (1988).  Correlates, Causes, Effects, and Treatment of Test Anxiety. Review of Educational Research Spring 1988, Vol. 58, 1, pp. 47-77
  1. Cassady, J. C. & Johnson, R. E. (2002). Cognitive Test Anxiety and Academic Performance. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 27, pp. 270-295.
  1. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response

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Is Helping Your Child with Homework Beneficial?

Now that October report cards are here, many parents will be asking themselves how they can help their child more with their grades. Is it okay to help them with homework, or should it be 100% on them?

The short answer is – yes, it’s more than okay! Helping with homework involves a lot of challenges and poses a lot of questions, but once you find the right approach to it, both you and your student will benefit. Here we will explain why, and we’ll also give you some tips on how to work through the challenges.

Benefits of helping with homework

Attitude towards learning. If you manage to create a comfortable atmosphere where mistakes are allowed and knowledge is rewarded, it will translate into a positive attitude and motivation to do and learn more. You’re showing your child that you believe in the school process and what it is trying to accomplish; you’re also guiding them to understand that hard work pays off. This mindset is a huge plus during their school years and in their future lives as well. [1]

Confidence. For some children, school is a piece of cake – they’re motivated, hard-working, and bursting with confidence about their grades. Yet for many of them, things aren’t so easy, especially at school where the teacher cannot focus on each student individually. But you can. At home, you can offer them the chance to develop and show off their skills without worrying whether their answer is correct or not. And after a while, this way of thinking will transfer into their school environment, giving them the confidence to help them progress.

Closeness. This part is especially important if your child is a teenager. As they grow up, children start craving more autonomy, becoming closer to their peers and spending less time with their parents. So bonding over homework and creating a welcoming atmosphere at home could be rewarding for your child, as well as you. Thanks to this interaction, you’ll be aware of what your child is currently learning, what their aspirations are, and whether you share an interest that could allow you to talk to them more.

How do I help?

If you have a child who’s currently in school, they’ve probably asked you to help them with homework a couple of times. You might have sat down with them, helping them with the difficult steps, or encouraged them to come up with the answers themselves. And while doing homework helps them understand school materials better, it also raises some questions parents often ask – How can I help them with their homework without solving too much for them? Should I monitor the whole process or just help them with the most difficult things? Am I capable enough to help them? – and so on.

To help answer these questions as well as any others you might have asked yourself, let’s start with a few tips on what to pay attention to when the time comes for your child to open the textbook.

Things to pay attention to

Atmosphere. While being knowledgeable about the topic at hand is likely to help you aid your child, it’s far from all that’s important. Even if you’re not too familiar with the topic they’re asking you about, you can still help by providing a good learning atmosphere that will help them concentrate better. And later on, who knows – maybe they’ll be able to come up with the answer themselves!

Now, what constitutes a good learning atmosphere?

This is different for every child, so there’s no simple answer. Let’s start with the way they act in their school environment (you will understand this one best if you contact their teacher and ask them). Are they usually interested and able to concentrate in class? Are they active and asking questions? If the answer to these is mostly “yes”, then you should create a similar, more structured atmosphere for homework as well. You can offer to time them as they do their homework or make sure they’re sitting at a desk clear of unnecessary and distracting things (such as a phone).

However, if they’re usually bored in class and have difficulty keeping their attention undivided, they may benefit from a less structured homework environment. In that case, having a bunch of things on their desk or even sitting on a couch as they try to do their homework could suit them better. If they feel comfortable, their attitude towards homework will be more positive, making it easier for them to finish their tasks. [2]

Learning style. This is similar to atmosphere, but it’s more about details than the amount of structure. Parents who understand their children’s learning style are better able to explain something to them in a way they will understand. While some children can sit in front of a book for hours, just reading and soaking up the knowledge, others do better with visual representation, so make sure to tailor your explanations to their individual style.

Also, children will enjoy the process of doing homework more if it matches up with their preferences. For example, some children prefer silence so they can focus more clearly; others work better if there’s some light music in the background, or just the regular everyday noises (neighborhood dogs, cars, etc.). And if your child tells you they’re calling friends over for a study group, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll just hang out and get nothing done. Some students thrive in the presence of their peers – they can motivate and explain things to each other. A group can often possess more knowledge than an individual. [3]

Level of directness. If you’re wondering whether you should give your child the answers or just hints, the answer is – it depends. When it comes to very young children (first or second-graders), they’ll most likely need direct answers. But as they grow older and more autonomous and start thinking in abstract terms, they’ll benefit from indirect answers. This is just a general rule, and it differs from subject to subject, task to task. If they need to memorize something, direct answers are the only way to help them; but if they have a science project or need to write a poem, you should merely stimulate their thinking with some helpful instructions and hints. [2]

Rewards and incentives. While it’s true that children should internalize the need to study and do well at school, giving them some rewards and incentives can help them along the way. A lot of children, both younger and older, tend to put off their homework until after they go out with friends, or until after that new episode of their favorite TV show is over. Instead, you can offer them a reward for after they finish homework. It should be something they really enjoy – a bigger allowance, a favorite dinner, slightly delayed bedtime, or a promise to take them to the concert they want to go to. Once you offer them something you know they want, they’ll be more motivated and get to their homework faster.

Just be careful with this – you shouldn’t reward them for every homework assignment, otherwise they might not internalize the motivation to do it! After some time, you can go from short-term to long-term incentives – if they get an A at the end of the school year, they’ll be rewarded. This way, they’ll realize they need to pay attention to homework in order to reach a future goal and they’ll be on their way towards having a positive attitude and greater motivation for it. [2]

Keep it short. For some parents, homework is just not very enjoyable. For others, it can be exhilarating, especially when it comes to subjects they really enjoy. It’s important to allow your child to focus on finishing their assignments before sharing your passion about the subject with them. Later on, if you notice they’re asking you some extra questions, you can enjoy a lengthy conversation with them. But while they’re in the middle of their work, they’ll prefer short and specific answers so they can deal with the task at hand before moving on to the next one – otherwise they might start getting distracted. Sharing your passion is a good thing; just make sure the timing doesn’t interfere with their assignments and doesn’t undermine your child’s needs. If you keep it short, you’re also showing them that you are focused on their needs instead of your own. [1]

Don’t be a prison guard. If you know your child’s motivation for homework is pretty low, you’ll be tempted to check their homework every day, maybe even against their wishes. And while some children like to have all their answers checked, others might feel as though they’re being constantly monitored and not smart or good enough if they get more than a few wrong.[1] So, how do you best work with these different points of view?

You can try to meet in the middle. For example, you can offer to check on the part of homework they find the most difficult. That way, they keep their autonomy for the majority of the assignment, but you’re showing them the importance of doing their work correctly at the same time.

Challenges

Now that you’re familiar with some of the tips you can use to help with homework, it’s only fair to mention some of the challenges parents might face themselves – the most important ones being time and knowledge.

Time. For some parents, squeezing in homework time can be difficult. You may work long hours and once home, you may be too tired to give your full attention to school assignments. So one fair solution could be to split the homework tasks – Dad could help on Mondays, Mom on Tuesdays, and so on. But this isn’t an option in all households. And while you may decide to give it your all and try to help despite being tired, if the homework takes too long, you may get even more tired and frustrated, which doesn’t help the situation.

So instead of going beyond your limit, you can schedule regular helping sessions that aren’t too long, but are enough to show your child you’re available and willing to help. With younger children, you can read together for ten minutes two or three times a week; with high school students you might discuss their science project after work.  Instead of battling to keep your eyes open so you can help with everything, you can have a short, enlightening discussion that will still be able to help them. This doesn’t only help them with their grades – it’s also a way to be a positive support for your child and to be engaged in their life, while making both of your lives easier! [2]

These arrangements are possible within most family schedules and still allow you to help; and besides, you can always offer rewards, as we mentioned before, and give valuable advice.  For example, if you notice your child is overwhelmed and becomes anxious about homework, suggest they separate it into smaller units and tackle one at a time. These don’t take too much of your time, but it still keeps you up to speed. [2]

Knowledge. Some parents might feel as though they’re  not up to the task when asked to help with homework, especially when it comes to older students. If you tend to think this but still want to help your child, the first thing you should do is talk to their teacher. Ask what they’re currently learning and, if time allows, you can also ask the teacher to recommend some books so you can familiarize yourself with the topic.

Another thing you can do is start from a positive standpoint – make yourself available for your child when they have questions and, who knows, maybe you will know the answer. However, if you don’t, it’s better to admit it than lead them astray. You can still help in two ways:

  1. By asking them to describe the problem to you. By going through it and answering their own questions, using you as a sounding board, they might find the answer themselves. [1]
  2. Create a positive atmosphere. As we mentioned before, giving an answer and being knowledgeable about the topic at hand are useful, but that’s not the only way you can help with homework.

Needless to say, every family is different. So if there’s still some issues not mentioned here, there’s plenty of experts willing to help you.

by Jelena Jegdić

References:

  1. Solomon Y., Warin J. & Lewis C. (2002). Helping with homework? Homework as a site of  tension for parents and teenagers, British Educational Research Journal, 2002 28 (4)
  2. Walker J.M.T. et. al. (2004). Parental Involvement in Homework: A Review of Current Research and Its Implications for Teachers, After School Program Staff, and Parent Leaders
  3. Perkins P.G. & Milgram R.M. (1996). Parent Involvement in Homework: A Double-Edged Sword, International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 6:3, 195-203

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