How to Help Your Child with Test Anxiety

  • Posted By: Alika Gillard
  • December 4, 2019
The school application process is tough: the applications, the deadlines, the interviews, and the lengthy exams can easily cause elevated levels of stress for both students and their parents. It's common (and completely normal) for students to feel anxious; however, we have provided some helpful tips for parents to keep in mind during the preparation process that may help reduce their students' test anxiety.

Minimize Comparisons

High-stakes standardized tests are all about comparisons. One of the first things that comes to mind for any given test (SAT, ACT, PSAT, SSAT, ISEE) is your score, a number which is often a direct comparison against other students' performance. (For instance, being in the 64th percentile is by definition a comparison: this means you performed better than 64% of your peers.)

This can be a tough part of the test prep process, especially for independent school and college entrance exams, where the applicant pools are often highly competitive. While it may be relevant or even important for students to know their official scores (depending on their age), during the preparation process, it can be detrimental to dwell on scores, which can be demotivating for students.

Instead, it may be beneficial to emphasize personal growth. Encourage your child to focus on questions or goals like:
    • How many more math questions did you or can you get right?
    • What's a question that you didn't know how to do before, that you know how to do now?
    • Which questions do you think you can learn how to answer correctly for next time?
    • Did you or can you improve your time management in order to reach every question in the allocated time?
Demonstrate confidence in your child's abilities and if they seem disheartened by their scores, help them set achievable goals that are more focused on learning than on specific scores.

Model Positive Behavior

Research-based evidence has shown that parental modeling of certain behaviors can increase those same cognitive processes and behaviors in their children, including academic behavior. For instance, Burstein and colleagues (2010) found that children who were exposed to anxious parental behavior before a test experienced greater test anxiety than students who did not. No matter how nervous you may be about the outcome of your child's upcoming exam, keep a calm and confident attitude around your child. This will help your child relax, feel confident, and ultimately do better on the test!

In the time leading up to the test, express confidence in your child, as well as assurances that no matter what happens on the test, everything will be fine. This can help to assuage common fears that students face going into high-stakes exams. Whenever you discuss the test, always use positive and affirmative language. On the day before the test, go to bed early with your child and the next morning, eat a nutritious breakfast with them—countless studies have shown that these healthy habits have a significant effect on test performance.


Much of what we say and think influences our emotions and behaviors. When asking your child about the test, listen closely to how they are talking about the test, and what they are telling themselves about the test. There is a big difference between the mindset that "this test is going to be difficult" and "I'm not going to know anything on this test."

Pay attention to any statements your child makes that suggest the following:
    • Comparing performance to other peers
    • Thinking about the consequences of failure
    • Worrying about negative evaluation
    • Feeling unprepared and helpless
    • Feeling low self-worth, low confidence
    • Fear of disappointing
    • Fearing poor performance and negative evaluation

These types of thoughts can elicit negative emotions and fuel avoidant behavior before and during the test. If you identify these attitudes, help your child turn these into positive thoughts and self-talk, which may help reduce anxiety, boost motivation, and improve test performance.

One good way to do this is to put two columns on a piece of paper and have your child write down all of the negative thoughts that might be crowding their head on the left side, and then on the right side, next to each negative thought, put a positive response. For instance, a negative thought might be "What will happen if I don't know how to do some of the questions on the test?" The corresponding positive response might be "I have good strategies to make educated guesses, and if I don't know how to do every question, that's ok—it's a hard test."

And of course, as above, remember to express confidence in your child and remind them that no single test will ever determine the course of their future.

Laugh about it!

Studies have shown that humor can sometimes lower test anxiety right before the exam ( Berk & Nanda, 2006; Ford et. al., 2012). Lighten up the drive to the test center with a couple of jokes or a funny podcast! This will set a positive tone and start the exam on a light-hearted note. Or perhaps, write a funny joke or two on a slip of paper and put it with your child's snack to read during the breaks (this may work better for younger kids). This gives them a chance to focus on something else and share a joke with another student. After the test is over, make sure to do something fun to shake off the stress of the test. Even if your child plans to take the test again, allow ample time for them to relax, reflect, and rejuvenate.

For more resources regarding test anxiety, visit our Test Anxiety Resources page.

Get started with your test prep today!