Simple Strategies to Reduce Test Anxiety

Ever noticed how fanfare creates stress?

Think of weddings, an event that ought to be vying for the most special day of your life, and almost everyone describes it as one of the most stressful experiences ever.

We just experienced a First Communion, with all the fancy dresses and suits, months of practice, cameras rolling, and parents weeping, and although that too should be a holy and powerful experience, it’s often shrouded in heightened emotions of stress, for both parents and 2nd graders.

Adding “extras” to an event shows people how important it is, and most people feel stress about that.

So is it any wonder that kids in schools palpably exude stress in the weeks before the “big standardized tests” are upon them? (teachers too?)

In our elementary school, the lunchtimes are actually moved around after spring break and for the entire end of the school year so that the 3rd and 4th graders can have longer mornings for testing practice and the actual test days.

Leah holding trail mix packs

The parent group provides special snacks. Click here to read about the best foods before a test.

The little kids make signs and cards to encourage the big kids.

Our 5th and 6th grade teachers, where they tested for FOUR WEEKS, created all sorts of advance drama in the classroom with special decorations, new goals, extra snacks and more.

The teachers in both schools drill practice opportunities for weeks in advance, all the while telling the kids not to be stressed out and that it doesn’t impact their grade, etc.

But.

Our actions speak louder than our words!

Adding all this fanfare and making testing time stand out with new routines and even environmental changes, in my opinion, probably serves only to stress kids out!

It’s too hard for kids to channel the emotions of excitement over new decorations over the stressful emotions surrounding testing, and I’m guessing that it builds up stress further, like a tidal wave, rather than diffusing it as intended.

It even trickles down to the kids who aren’t taking the tests – even when I had a second grader who didn’t have to take tests, he said all the kids say that the test is really hard, and the rumor is that if you don’t pass it have to take it again.

This totally isn’t true, but it’s what kids believe before they even get a chance to get stressed out by the actual testing!

As an intentional parent, I have to ask: What can we do in our environment, nourishment, and routines to reduce stress around testing (and school in general)? 

Negative Impact of Stress on Our Health & Academic Performance

boy stressed about school

Research shows that when anxiety spikes, a person’s IQ actually decreases 10%, and access to working memory is inhibited. Working memory allows a child to comprehend what they’re reading, hold a number in their head while doing a math problem, follow directions, and make decisions.

Sounds like exactly what kids need while testing!

Actual anxiety disorders already affect over one-third of our adolescents (and that’s a pre-pandemic number which is certainly higher now).1

One in eight children are affected as well.2

“Research shows that untreated children with anxiety disorders are at higher risk to perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences, and engage in substance abuse,”3 so this isn’t only about testing. Increasing our children’s stress has disastrous short and long term consequences.

Stress alone can change our gut microbiome, and poor foods also impact the gut for 48 hours after eating. Since the gut and brain are connected, all of this impacts testing as well.

RELATED: What is the best probiotic for you

Biological Inhibitors of Stress

Although stress can come from external factors like testing, and teachers and parents would do well to do what we can to reduce stressful events for children (or the fanfare around them), there are some biological (physical) ways we can protect kids from the impact of external stress

These are built into human beings, and what a gift!

For example, serotonin is the “feel-good hormone” that helps us manage stress, be happy, sleep better.

Dopamine is our “reward hormone” that keeps us motivated, whether it’s to pay attention through a whole test or to keep working on mastering our stress.

In her Global Stress Summit interview, Dr. Elisa Song reminded us, “Our cells can’t differentiate between emotional and physiological stress. The brain, heart, gut and immune system interpret all of these stressors as life is not good and causes inflammation.”

This means that if our body is less healthy, we’re more susceptible to emotional stress as well. And if we can give our body the nourishment it needs, we are more protected from what the world throws at us. 

Probiotics make at least 80% of the neurotransmitters in our body and promote serotonin and dopamine. Feeding your gut with probiotics and a healthy diet is vital to brain performance which is why so many say, “All health starts in the gut.”

Is it coincidence that April is officially National Stress Awareness month and the time when most school kids are taking standardized tests, plus adults are paying their taxes? I think not!

We need stress-busting strategies every day of the year here in America though, as we worry about everything from our retirement savings and current bottom line to keeping up with the neighbors on social media to “are we being the best parent possible or are our kids going to be talking about us in therapy in 15 years?”

Let’s apply what we know about the human body, from gut to brain to hormones and back, to develop a toolbox for intentional parents to help support their kids and reduce testing anxiety.

Reduce Testing Anxiety with Stress-Busting Strategies

women with books

Our kids WILL have stressors in their lives; we can’t protect them from that. Teaching them to cope with and handle their stress appropriately and safely for their bodies is our goal.

Teachers and parents can teach kids anxiety-busting strategies for right before a test, but to truly set kids up for success, their lifestyle should be oriented toward increasing resilience and learning to manage stress as a life skill

Everyday Habits that will Serve your Kids Well:

  • Reduce the schedule. Kids who are running from one event to the next with barely time to do their homework are automatically going to have less capacity when things go wrong. Try not to over-schedule your kids. 
  • Practice breathing. We think breathing is natural and not something we need to teach or learn, but it’s not. Teach kids a 2x breath, extending the exhale twice as long as the inhale, and practice it regularly. Elmo will teach you and your kids some good belly breathing in this YouTube video.
  • Be grateful. Regularly taking time to “count our blessings” helps train kids’ brains to focus on the positive in the next day and automatically reduces some of the negative impacts of stress on the body by releasing some of those feel-good hormones. 
  • Eat dinner together. Research shows over and over that family dinners increase bonding, improve academic performance, and reduce anxiety and depression for kids. The benefits begin at just twice a week! You can even use that time to practice your breathing and gratitude. Learn more about the impact of family dinners here
  • Get enough sleep. The importance of sleep can’t be understated; schools often remind parents to allow ample time for sleep the night before a test, but we know that short sleep has a lasting impact. You can’t fix a regular sleep deficit by going to bed early one night. Make this a priority in your home, and be sure to get those screens OFF 1-2 hours before bedtime. See these simple tips for blue light blocking and more.
  • Reduce sugar. Kids who consume a lot of simple carbohydrates are sabotaged in areas of attention, cognition, and emotions. Consider cutting back, and read this post about inflammation caused by sugar from one of my favorite pediatricians. Read more on how sugar may be the root of chronic disease.
  • Go outside. Get plenty of sunshine and Vitamin D, incredibly important for neurological support and mood.

And let’s just all get on the same page that talking about testing in logical, unemotional ways is important

Say to your kids, “Tests show what we know – they’re just information for your teachers. We do our best but don’t need to worry about scores.” 

I heard someone say that he asks his kids, “How often are you going to fail?” The answer is “never” because it’s their family motto that you either succeed or learn. All problems are learning opportunities. If that’s the tone of your home, your kids are going to approach tests with far less anxiety. 

Pre-test Strategies to Reduce Test Anxiety

For teachers in classrooms or parents supporting their kids on the day of a “big test,” or for college students who want to ace those exams without stress, here are some actions you can take in the minutes before picking up the pencil (or more likely, opening the laptop): 

  • Smile at each other. A real smile triggers happiness hormones of serotonin and dopamine! If you don’t feel like smiling, fake it till you make it!
  • Use laughter. Teachers could play a short funny video (kids love physical humor, so maybe a montage of people falling from America’s Funniest Home Videos?) or have a joke contest or do something silly. 
  • Practice breathwork. Those deep belly breaths are a skill to call upon right before a test and will get the brain in the right place for learning. RELATED: Stress Mastery Techniques
  • Encourage gratitude. Thinking about something or someone you’re grateful for releases all those feel-good hormones and calms the brain, allowing kids to access the executive functioning they need for the test. 
  • Diffuse peppermint (for kids over 10). Peppermint is a good stimulating aroma that wakes up the brain and can help focus. 
  • Movement: Dr. Song says exercise supports mood and brain function better than Prozac! Many teachers already utilize brain-boosting exercises that can be done standing alongside a student’s desk, needing no special equipment or space. If you don’t have any routines already, it’s quick and easy to do some toe touches to get blood up in your head, feeding your brain, and cross your arms and legs across the midline of your body, connecting the right and left hemispheres of the brain. 

Calming Foods to Reduce Test Anxiety

Stress tends to drive us toward comfort foods, which are often inflammatory, which raise our stress levels — what a cycle! 

If you can increase calming foods in your kids’ diets regularly, but especially during testing weeks, they’ll be so far ahead. 

Make these a priority

RELATED: Power Brain Foods for Standardized Testing

What to Eat for Breakfast on a Big Test Day to Reduce Stress?

Keeping a clean diet with low inflammatory foods, lots of plant variety, and healthy fats is important every day of the year, but we definitely want to fuel our kids’ brains right before they enter standardized testing

Parents should consider EGGS for a power breakfast the morning of the big test.

  • Eggs are high in choline, a nutrient that may be positively linked to improved verbal and visual memory.4 This may not actually improve the brain in the short term but certainly doesn’t hurt.
  • Eggs also provide fat and protein to satiate longer through the day.
farm fresh eggs

Dr. Heidi Hanna, the founder of the stress mastery method, recommends protein and healthy fats to help blood sugar stability. She reminds us that stress-induced anxiety often causes cravings, and it can be easy to be drawn towards more sugary or starchy foods.

Carbs can increase energy temporarily but then cause a crash, which would severely interrupt concentration, likely at the worst time of the test!

Keep in mind that we want kids to be familiar with the breakfast. If your children always have cereal for breakfast and are suddenly presented with a meal of scrambled eggs and salmon, they’re likely to feel anxious about breakfast! 

Work to incorporate balanced breakfasts often, and if your kids do need a familiar carbohydrate at breakfast, strive for whole grains which won’t spike the blood sugar so intensely. 

sausage on a plate

Kid-Safe Supplements to Reduce Testing Anxiety

While college students might be drinking coffee to study for the SATs and using CBD to calm down, there aren’t a lot of supplements that should be considered for kids. They don’t need them

On the other hand, we live in a world where it’s hard to find our parasympathetic state sometimes. 

Genexa Stress Buster is a homeopathic blend, completely safe for kids as young as two, that may help your kids settle down when feeling test anxiety

We also want to help kids utilize the power of their parasympathetic state, and while teaching them to breathe is the best and most important step, some kids want a little help. 

Vibrant Blue Oils’ Parasympathetic essential oils blend is fantastic to help kids get into their parasympathetic state and reduce anxiety. Just teach them how to put a tiny drop on their mastoid bone, the bump just behind their ear lobe, ideally with a little massage on that bone. That will stimulate the vagus nerve connecting the brain to the gut and encourage the body to be calmer. 

And of course, keeping one’s magnesium levels appropriate to assist in better sleep, relaxation, and focus, and mag products are extremely safe for kids:

Wondering what the difference is in all the different forms of magnesium? Read this post to learn more about what form of magnesium will serve your kids best!

Bottom Line: Anxious Kids Don’t Perform Well on Tests

We know anxiety interferes with kids’ best opportunity for success for many reasons. Parents would do well to:

  • Create a lifestyle that helps kids master their stress, with regular exercise, good sleep, and clean eating.
  • Teach kids stress-busting techniques like breathing, gratitude, and laughing together. 
  • Share the list of pre-test anxiety busters with teachers. 
  • Plan a healthy balanced breakfast for test day. 
  • Consider anxiety-reducing supplements if necessary. 

Test season doesn’t have to be stressful

We can help our kids perform well and feel great about their school year. 

Big thanks to the following colleagues for their wisdom!

  • Dr. Ryan Wohlfert, Total Health Spine and Nutrition
  • Jess Sherman, nutritionist and author See her interview on resilience on the Healthy Parenting Connector here.
  • Sara Vance, nutritionist and author See her interview about metabolism on the Healthy Parenting Connector here
  • Dr. Heidi Hanna, Director of the American Institute of Stress
  • Sona Lesmeister, stress coach and member of the American Institute of Stress
  • My other stress mastery colleagues: Taryn S. Young, Paula Jablonski, Lee Bougie & Lisa Dorval
What do you do before a big test to reduce test anxiety?

Footnotes:

  1. National Institute of Mental Health. (2017, November). Any Anxiety Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder.shtml
  2. Anxiety & Depression Association of America. (n.d.) Children and Teens. Retrieved from https://adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/children
  3. Anxiety & Depression Association of America. (n.d.) Facts & Statistics. Retrieved from https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics
  4. National Institute of Mental Health. (2021, March 29). Choline. Retrieved from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Choline-HealthProfessional/#h7

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