In part one of this series we discussed the basic idea that preparation for a test can seriously help remove some of the anxiety and stress students face today when they are studying and taking a test. In this portion of the series we will be focusing more on the possible causes and issues of test anxiety that arise from things outside of school. In part 3 of this series we will be focusing on possible causes of test anxiety that come from within the school itself.
As has been said all along: Many students suffer from serious test anxiety today in school. It is becoming a serious problem and is negatively hurting the grades of many students out there who otherwise understand the material and do their work. It is also one of the least understood aspects of stress students face in school today. That is why we decided to focus on this series of articles right at the beginning of Teacher Tip Offs. We know it is important and we want to help. That is why we’ve put together this guide, which discusses the major internal and external causes of test anxiety for students today.
With test and performance anxiety in schools being so prevalent today for students there seems to be several overriding factors that are found in some form in most students who suffer from this. Now, these factors aren’t necessarily the only cause in students however the argument could be made that they are perhaps the most common and prevalent causes of test anxiety out there today.
Internal Pressure applied by the kids themselves – Generally this pressure can be broken down into one or more of the following types:
Worrying about their future – This has become more common these last few years especially due to the change in economic climate of this country. As students become more and more aware of the current state of the job market and the challenges they will face in the world today after they graduate high school they become more stressed over every test they will take. In the eyes of some particularly worrisome students they manage to equate their entire future to their success or failure on the test they might be taking tomorrow in chemistry class. Now, obviously to adults that idea seems patently ludicrous but to a 15 year old kid who just knows that it is tough out there and little else that test may be an incredibly nerve racking experience. My advice would be to try to imagine what it is like taking a test that you think may make or break your entire future as a student and professional. Sounds awful right? Now imagine doing it 3 or 4 times a month.
What to do
The best advice that can be given about this issue is to simply talk to your kids if you think it is causing them serious stress. Ask them if they are worried about their future, about getting into a good college, or if they are nervous about getting a good job someday. The answers may surprise you as a parent. The key to addressing this issue is simply helping your child understand that life is about far more than the test they are taking on Tuesday. Try to give them some context in which to place that test in the grand overall scheme of their life. Most kids don’t realize how much, even academically, there is to life outside of high school and their immediate classes. I would have to say that getting a B on a test isn’t going to ruin a kid’s life. As a parent who has gone through this, you would probably agree with that statement. To help your child, your job is make them understand that as well.
Fear of failure – This can be a major issue, and one that is becoming more and more commonplace today in school and society. It gets amplified considerably when it comes to high stakes test taking. It stems in many ways from the lack of failure most children experience at a young age. Now, this is not an opinion or judgment but simply a statement of fact as to how things appear in today’s world. In most activities young kids do today, they are not allowed to fail or lose. Everyone gets a trophy, everyone gets a prize, or we’re not going to keep score for their games, etc. Kids do not experience failure when they are young anymore so they don’t know how to deal with it. They get scared and confused, in many cases anxious, when they are faced with possibly failing at something.
It is most commonly seen in school when students who have relatively easily gotten A’s and B’s throughout their early school years begin taking more difficult classes in their 2nd or 3rd year in high school specifically. This is the time when many of the “top” students begin taking classes that legitimately challenge them for the first time in their academic lives. It is the first time they can walk into a class for a test with the idea in the back of their mind that they might not get an A on it. This can lead to an incredible amount of anxiety and nervousness for the kids.
It is not reserved only to students in those grades however, it can happen to any student today at any age. The big worry the students think about with this fear of failure is how they will appear to their friends, parents, and teachers. They are as much worried about internally being disappointed as they are about disappointing those around them who they care about and seek approval from.
What to do
If you think that one of the above factors may be causing your child anxiety there are a few things you can do about it. First, address the issue of failure with them directly. Failure is something that has a different definition for every person. There are students who get B’s and consider that a failure while others pass with a D and are thrilled beyond belief. Help them understand that failure, no matter what they consider it to be, is a part of life whether they like it or not. Sometimes people fail, it is as simple as that and there is nothing that can be done about. No amount of preparation, hard work, or diligence can prevent it sometimes. Now obviously this is not an endorsement of failure in any way but helping a child understand that failure is a part of life can help alleviate much of the anxiousness they suffer from.
External Pressures : There are several possible external pressures that can lead to students suffering from test anxiety such as peer pressure and teacher interaction but those occur more in school and will be discussed in part 3 of this series. What this section will focus on are parents and their expectations for their kids.
Parents and Expectations – Now, this can be a very sensitive topic for parents because their children are their children. They are able to raise them however they feel is proper and obviously no one outside of them has the final say in that. That statement is not up for debate nor is it being challenged.
However, in many instances the number one cause, by a wide margin, of test anxiety for students today is due to parents and their intense expectations of success. Now obviously expectations are a good thing and rarely could someone be admonished for making sure their kid understands that things are expected out of them. Too many kids these days have no expectations placed upon them and it leads to bad things. Yet, sometimes having very, very high expectations for children in school can lead to debilitating test anxiety, especially if the student struggles to meet those expectations regularly.
In my experience as a teacher I have had students with such severe test anxiety they were barely able to make it through a test without breaking down into tears. In every one of those cases I can tell you that the students parents had such high expectations for their student that they bordered on being near impossible. The hardest thing I see at parent teacher conferences is that internal struggle some parents face when they are confronted with the fact that their son or daughter may not be able to meet their expectations. Now these expectations can range from simply wanting a passing grade to expecting near 100%’s in every class. It all depends on the parents, situation, and what they want for their children. No matter the level though, sometimes kids just won’t be able to live up to those expectations.
The reasons for not meeting those expectations can be numerous and quite varied. It could simply involve the student not having enough time to study due to sports, clubs, or music. It could simply be that the student does not place the same importance on academics that the parents do and perhaps never will. It could be one of many other reasons. The hardest reason for parents to except though, in some cases, is that their son or daughter simply perhaps is not able to achieve at the grade level they would like. Even if the child studies endlessly for 2 days straight before a major test they still might get a B despite preparing well, working hard, and trying their best. Sometimes that is just the best a kid can do. I know from my experience this is very, very hard for many parents to accept. Everyone wants to believe their kid should be the one getting the A+ on every test and in every class yet realistically sometimes that isn’t possible.
What to do
If this sounds like something you may be dealing with internally then perhaps it is time to consider having a talk with your child about some things. Obviously high expectations are good and important for all kids but they must be realistic. If your child is trying their absolute best yet still just struggling to get over that hump from a B to an A and they just can’t do it or perhaps they are working their tail of and only getting a C despite trying so hard it hurts. You might want to avoid the next lecture or punishment designed to encourage them to do better. Instead a simple conversation reassuring them that their hard work is noticed and appreciated will go a long way towards helping to reduce any anxiety they might feel.
Make them understand that there are still expectations and you know they are trying their best to reach them but you also still support them even if they can’t quite reach those lofty goals that are set. I realize this is obvious to you: you support your children, you love them and you care about them, you just want them to succeed but you will always love them and be proud of them. However, in some cases I don’t think the kids know this. They aren’t old enough to realize that is how things work in most cases. They simply don’t want to disappoint badly that they become so nervous and anxious they can’t help but do poorly on a test or a quiz. In many cases some reassurance and perhaps a reevaluation of whether your expectations for your children are realistic can go a long, long way towards helping calm the test anxiety that many students suffer from today.
If this sounds like it is something that will help you and your children, please, please share it with others whom you think it may benefit.
Founder and President of SchoolEdge Mobile Inc., High School Chemistry Teacher, Father, Husband, Michigan State University Graduate