Tuesday 16 July 2019

Dear David Coleman: My daughter (10) has exam-related anxiety... her teacher had to take her out of class during a test

It is perfectly normal and natural for children to be nervous before exams
It is perfectly normal and natural for children to be nervous before exams
David Coleman

David Coleman

Q My daughter is near the end of national school and has been sitting the Drumcondra tests. The problem is that each time she sits these tests she has become more and more nervous, and her teacher had to take her out of class while doing one of the test papers this year. When she calmed down and completed the paper, she got a STEN score of 9, so she has lots of ability. This is obviously an inability to deal with exam stress, that she will need to overcome at some point as exams are only going to get more pressurised as she moves to secondary school. What can I do to help her in the future?

David replies:  It is hard for any child to face into exams. By their nature, they are clearly labelled as a test of the child, allowing for the comparison of a child's ability, or attainment, with lots of other children. Children realise this too and so naturally they can be nervous about how they will perform.

Although the Drumcondra tests are not presented as massively significant 'exams' to national school children, some children do feel anxious in the moment. There is a whole cohort of students aged 17-19 who will have faced their Leaving Cert in the last few weeks, and even with the benefit of greater age and maturity, they too will have experienced test-related anxiety.

I think it is perfectly normal and natural for your daughter to be nervous. Nervousness about tests usually falls into three categories. Nervousness of the unknown, because they may never have sat a test before; nervousness of failure (not getting a good mark in her end of year report), and nervousness of being overwhelmed by the amount of work to be done to achieve a good result.

When your daughter is sitting secondary school exams, having the opportunity to do practice papers in class may help a lot with two of these anxieties (ie, the unknown nature of the test and the work required to do well). Allied with exam practice, I think it will help your daughter to learn some relaxation techniques. I'd recommend learning a breathing technique, since breathing is often the best way to tackle the adrenalin-related physical symptoms of anxiety (heart thumping, pains in the tummy, tense muscles and so on).

My favourite breathing technique encourages children to breathe long and slow into the bottom of their lungs, counting to four as they breathe in and counting down from four as they breathe out. I suggest they don't hold their breath, as that can add to tension, but rather experience the breath as a smooth and fluid motion from breathing in, straight into breathing out.

Between long slow breaths like this, they can then try to focus on positive self-talk. Reminding themselves of things that are good, things that will go well, things that they are able for and so on. So, for your daughter, she may want to learn to say things like "I've done lots of these mock tests, so the real thing will be no problem". Or, "I usually do well in tests and so this one will also go well".

Positive thinking, like this, challenges the negative thoughts associated with the nervousness, and so can help to keep the anxieties at bay. It can be hard to think positively, however, if a child is feeling all of the physical symptoms of anxiety, since their instinctive self may be in the ascendency. Calming themselves down with an effective relaxation exercise usually frees up their rational, logical thinking enough to be able to focus themselves more positively.

As you say, your daughter will be challenged with many more tests and exams in her life and so, at some point she will need to learn these skills to be able to regulate the nervousness.

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