8 Ways to Keep your Child Calm & Confident During Assessments
Assessing children in their younger years has led to a marked rise in test anxiety in children as young as six. Whether or not you agree with the idea of early assessments, our response should be to understand what causes the stress, recognise when it is present, and do all we can to reduce it. There are some fail-safe ways to be a supportive and positive force in your child’s learning journey, and to sow the much-needed seeds of calm confidence into them.
Here are my top eight to get you started:
- Talk about their feelings
Surprisingly, not all children know that it is normal to feel anxious about tests. They may not vocalise, or even recognise, their concerns, and so it’s vital that caregivers help them express themselves. Sharing anxieties almost always reduces them, and when they see how relaxed and positive you are as you discuss their misgivings, they will instantly feel better. Questions like, “Are you finding it easy to go to sleep at night?”, or “or “What are you worried will happen if you make mistakes in the Pre-Tests?”, are good routes into relevant conversation. I often use the ‘scale of 1-10’ approach, asking, “On a scale of 1-10 how are you feeling about XYZ?”, that way I am not making any assumptions about their feelings, whilst also allowing an easy follow-up such as, “What would bring the number down below 5?”.
- Explain what the tests will be like and how they work
Particularly for older children, knowledge is empowering. When we understand something, it tends to lose some of the associated fear. Educate yourself as to what the tests involve, so you can explain it in a simple and age-appropriate way. Find practice forums that mimic the tests, be they online or in books, and do some together, explaining the nuances and scoring systems as you go. Be sure to let them know that assessments are only one small part of the process, and that they cannot indicate value or ability as a whole. Disposition, skills, passions and natural talent cannot be easily measured, so make sure they understand that school tests aren’t the whole picture. (We parents need to remember that too, otherwise we won’t communicate it persuasively. Take a moment to re-gain perspective and consider your child in their big, beautiful entirety – pretty wonderful, right?) When it comes to school entrance processes, any good Admissions Department will try to consider your child as a whole, using references from the headteachers and so on to inform their decisions. I think it’s also important to view any tests as allies rather than enemies. They exist to help teachers understand how best to help their students. When my children were in the senior school entrance process, I often reminded them that the Pre-Tests were there to help us find the right fit for them, operating as extremely helpful indicators in match-making child with school.
- Find a revision style and plan to suit your child
Preparation is key to reducing anxiety. Any child who knows they have done their best can be proud of their performance. The trouble is, if they’ve never seen the types of questions before, nor the test format, they will not be able to do their best. Even very young children can sit down and do a worksheet or quiz for five minutes, but the trick is to find a revision style that they enjoy, you can facilitate, and helps them prepare for their specific tests. It’s critical that parents educate themselves about the exams, knowing what format they will be in, (online or paper, multiple choice or long answers, adaptive or standardised etc), and how the scoring system works. Spending the time to research and plan early on in the process will really help you both remain calm. Aim to create a plan that requires little snippets of time, on a frequent basis. The younger the child, the shorter the amount of revision time. Five minutes together a few times a week will work wonders for a 6-year-old child, whereas a 10-year-old could easily manage 30-minute chunks, four or five times a week.
- Make time for treats and rewards
I am definitely not endorsing bribery with sweets to revise, but I am asking you to be mindful of the difficulty a child has in seeing the long-term gains of hard work. In the same way that caregivers must create a negative consequence (when a natural one is absent) to teach a lesson, we should create a positive reward for their hard work because the natural one is, as yet, intangible to them. It can be as simple as, “you are free to play video games / have some ice-cream / bake with me, once you’ve done 15 minutes of revision”.
Setting concrete goals, and rewards for achieving them, will up motivation levels and give them something fun to look forward to. My son had to do ten days of revision (20 mins each time) in order to earn a trip with me to Starbucks. I cannot tell you how well-spent that money was, not to mention it being a fun and exciting trip for us both. One-to-one time with a parent, plus a treat to boot, makes for a happy, incentivised child. When I considered the price of the school fees at the schools I was hoping he’d get into, a £4 Starbucks every fortnight was an excellent investment!
- Plenty of sleep, water and play time
It might sound obvious but there is no substitute for giving your child a healthy lifestyle. Not only will your child be happier, but they will also be far more able to cope with the idea of tests. Children need 10 hours of sleep on average, which can be incredibly hard to get if your child has long school-days, has assigned prep already, or is heavily involved in extra-curricular activities. However hard it is to enforce, it is a sure-fire way to improve both their well-being and test results, so do whatever is necessary to rein in bedtimes.
I included drinking water in the list above because I am amazed by how my children forget to drink during the day! I now make them have a glass of water when they wake up, before they leave to school, and as soon as they return, (I actually take a bottle in the car with a snack, and I don’t even have to prompt them to drink it). Dehydration wreaks havoc on moods, concentration levels and sleep quality, and yet it is easily avoidable. Last, but by no means least, playtime. This is another essential thing to do by the bucket-load. Playing with your child is an investment that reaps vast rewards, both in the present and the future, and there is nothing else that so directly decreases anxiety. Not only is it a distraction, but it allows your child to be silly and have fun, which is a great balance to the seriousness that can creep in around exam periods.
- Constantly reassure them of your love and pride, no matter what
Another seemingly obvious one, but I find very easy to neglect. Life is busy and I’m always focused on the day’s to-do list, so I don’t actually remember to state the obvious. It feels cheesy at times to tell my daughter that I love her regardless of her exam results, and that I am so proud of her for doing her best, (she’s heading for GCSEs now). But, every single time I say it, she seems to need to hear it. The world around our children is sadly, but constantly, telling them they are not enough, don’t have the right stuff, aren’t sporty / clever / pretty enough. At a time of assessments, it is even easier for them to ask themselves the same question, “Will I be good enough?”. Saying the words, “You are enough”, is immensely powerful and underlines your belief in them and love for them, regardless of test scores. In the same vein, try hard not to criticise, reminding yourself to focus on what they are good at, their strengths and their efforts. Chances are they will already be fully aware of their weaknesses, so they probably don’t need them to be underlined.
- Help them learn test skills, not just content
It’s tempting to simply focus on the test curriculum and try to make sure our child knows all of it backwards. However, there is real merit in teaching exam / test skills that can be used across all assessment environments, both now and in the future. Teach them how to relax, calm themselves, and read the questions carefully and slowly. Teach them how to make a sensible guess, or work out the answers by process of elimination if it’s a multiple-choice format. Teach them to make sure they understand what the question is asking, rather than rushing forward in assumption. Teach them how to strike a balance between clock-watching, and avoiding making silly mistakes in haste. Teach them to check their work, or leave a tricky question until the end, so that they finish the rest of the paper. Definitely teach them to coolly accept when they simply do not know the answer. More often than not, just making them aware of these things is enough, but it’s definitely worth your time teaching these life-skills which will directly reduce stress levels in exam settings.
- Let them see that not all nervousness is bad
I remember listening to a professional runner talking about his pre-race nerves and referring to them as a friend. I thought that was an excellent way to consider the butterflies we all get prior to a big test. Adrenalin sharpens the mind, bringing focus and efficiency that is impossible without it. Letting our children know nerves can be harnessed to help us do our best, may well alleviate the trepidation.
(This content was written for, and appeared first on, the page of our partners, MumsintheWoodEducation.com. Check out their site here for excellent advice on everything and anything to do with a UK education.)