Every time a test comes around the same symptoms start to crop up. Your child complains of headaches or stomachaches, has trouble sleeping, cries or becomes or irritable, and may even beg to stay home from school. Older kids and teens may tell you that they’re worried about a test, say that they’re going to fail, or fear that they’ll panic and their mind will go blank when the exam is in front of them. Test anxiety is a very real problem that affects 25-40% of students, and occurs more often in kids and teens with ADHD. While a mild amount of anxiety can actual help with focus during study sessions and exams, the high levels of stress, nervousness, and fear that accompanies test anxiety will actually have the opposite effect.
Research shows that test anxiety is generally caused by factors related to fear of failure, unrealistic expectations, negative self-talk, being underprepared for the exam, and a history of poor test performance. For kids with ADHD, additional factors like low self-esteem, poor study habits, organizational difficulties, problems with chronic procrastination, and difficulty staying focused during class and during exams also contribute to test anxiety. Because of these additional factors, kids and teens with ADHD will need extra support from parents, teachers, and school counselors to overcome their test anxiety. Here are a few tips to help your child or teen get started:
- Study Skills. Strong study skills will lay the foundation for improved test performance, self-confidence, and reduced test anxiety. Unfortunately most kids are never actually taught how to study! Most kids without ADHD will not pick up good study strategies on their own. Instead they will need coaching on specific study skills that will enable them to be successful. Enroll your child in a study skills program at their school or in an afterschool program at a local learning center. You can also check out some home-based study skills programs. Personally, I like SOAR Study Skills by Susan Kruger.
- Relaxation Exercises. Your child will benefit from learning at least one relaxation exercise that they can use before and during tests to reduce anxiety. The relaxation techniques should be simple things that your child can do without having to rely on a phone or tablet app. For younger kids, PBS provides some helpful instructions on calming breathing exercises (http://www.pbs.org/parents/adventures-in-learning/2015/09/calming-breathing-exercise-for-kids/). For teens, AnxietyBC has a “How to Chill” webpage with a variety of relaxation exercises that can be used anytime and anywhere (http://youth.anxietybc.com/relaxation).
- Take the pressure off. Help your child or teen learn that their self-worth and self-esteem are not based on their test scores. Point out all of the things in your child’s life that will continue to go well regardless of how they perform on their next exam. Share all of the things that you love about your child that have nothing to do at all with their grades or test scores!
- Reduce distractions and request extended time on exams. Kids with ADHD may experience more test anxiety when they are in distracting classrooms or when they are taking timed tests. Consider requesting school accommodations that will allow your child to take tests in a quiet space and with extended time. Once your child has learned new study skills and has a better handle on their test anxiety, the may no longer need these accommodations and can return to taking tests in their regular classroom.
- Work with the school counselor. School counselors typically have a great deal of experience with helping kids overcome test anxiety. They can help your child learn strategies of tackling negative self-talk, fear of failure, procrastination, and can teach relaxation techniques. They can also help your child learn to advocate for themselves and learn to ask for extra help from their teachers when they need it.
Test anxiety is a very real problem for many kids and teens with ADHD, and it’s not likely to get better on its own. Help your child master their test anxiety by learning study skills, practicing relaxation exercises, and taking advantage of helpful resources at school. With the right skills and strategies your child’s anxiety will go down and their test scores will go up in the process!