Last generation, probably the first big test or exam a student sat was in the final year of primary school.
Add to that a variety of other big tests – such as those to gain access to “opportunity” or “enrichment” programs or selective schools plus a variety of university-coordinated exams and state-run maths, science and English tests – and children at a fairly young age now need to learn the skills to cope with examination pressure.
Sometimes, too these tests can be quite long for small children – in Year 3 each of the four NAPLAN tests runs for 40 minutes or more – and be held outside the classroom, like in the school hall.
Most of the test-doing skills, such as time management, reading through questions and knowing what to expect, will be taught by teachers. And kids will also be given the chance to do some trial exams, particularly around the time of NAPLAN.
But parents can also help their children face the pressure of tests and exams.
The experts at KidsMatter, a national mental health initiative operating in hundreds of schools and early childhood services around Australia helping children, teachers and families, have a whole lot of strategies for parents.
Many children, they say, will cope well with the challenge of tests, exams and assessments but parents and carers should be aware of how their responses can add to, or relieve, the pressure felt by children.
Common behaviours when children feel nervous or stressed
Sometimes children tell us how they are feeling through their behaviour, says KidsMatter.
These changes in behaviour could indicate stress or nervousness:
- being more irritable
- easily upset
- clingy or fidgety
- displaying less interest in activities they normally enjoy
“Some children can find it difficult to put into words how they are feeling, so it is often up to parents and carers to recognise that their child needs some extra support,” says KidsMatter.
What can parents do to help?
1.‘Being there’ emotionally
During times of stress, children usually need extra nurturing, comfort and understanding from their parents and carers to help them feel secure and confident. Be open and receptive to how children are feeling as well as provide comfort and attention when needed.
2. Discuss feelings
Encourage children to talk about how they feel. Listen with empathy so they feel understood and know that their feelings are normal. Help your children to understand that talking about feelings can help to manage them.
3. Support children’s confidence
Teach children to be brave by showing them you believe they can do it, and encourage them to ‘have a go’ even if they are feeling nervous. Providing positive feedback for effort, celebrating successes and encouraging them to keep trying will help your children to feel confident in approaching assessments.
4. Help with relaxation skills
Breathing slowly to calm down and helping them to imagine themselves coping well during a test are really helpful ways of managing anxiety. Doing it with them is a fun way to start.
5. Teach helpful thinking
Instead of saying to themselves “I can’t do this” encourage them to say “I’ll give it a go”.
6. Lead by example
Show your child how you cope positively with feeling anxious or stressed by thinking out loud e.g., “I feel a bit nervous, but I’m going to try my best”. Remaining calm and positive when your child is feeling anxious can help them to feel more confident.
7. Help your child have clear expectations
Talking through what will happen. You may even wish to talk to the school about where the test will take place and see if you can visit beforehand. Many big tests can be held in the school hall or even off-campus.
8. Discuss problem-solving
Brainstorm situations that might arise during the test and then come up with possible solutions with them. For example, ask them what are three things that they might be able to do if they freeze in the exam and feel sick – possible strategies include taking 10 slow breaths to calm down and refocus, taking a sip of water if it is available or letting a teacher know they feel unwell.
9. Teach confidence-building tricks
For example, looking through the paper and completing questions they know they can answer first before trying more difficult ones.
If you’re still worried
If you feel your child’s level of stress or anxiety becomes excessive then some options to consider are:
- Talk with your child’s classroom teacher about how your child is managing at school and the resources your school can offer.
- Ask to speak to the school psychologist or counsellor.
- Talk with your GP or paediatrician who can help to explore what is happening for the child and family and also provide referrals to other practitioners who may be able to help if necessary.