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Understanding Student Anxiety

During my first exam in grad school, I got very emotional. I had to excuse myself for a minute so I could wipe my tears in the hallway. I had prepared and knew the material, but the pressure I put on myself not to fail overwhelmed me. This may have been the first time when I really recognized that I had anxiety, not just test anxiety either.

In high school, I was placed in an upper level math class. I probably didn’t belong there but didn’t know the difference to take a regular level class. I thought my teacher was the best judge of my math ability. I can remember crying after every single math test. I believe I earned a decent grade because of effort, not necessarily my math ability. Anyway, this blog isn’t about me but about helping you, the reader, recognize when anxiety might be playing a role in your child’s life. I’m not a psychologist or therapist, but after working with young people now for over 14 years, one begins to recognize characteristics similar to mine.

Working with high school students for nearly 20 years, I have started recognizing similar traits in my students. I commonly hear “I have test anxiety so I don’t test well.” After asking them a series of follow up questions, I typically discover a few things: A) My students are cramming for their tests. B) My students haven’t found the best studying techniques for a specific subject. C) Students are putting pressure on themselves because they don’t want to fail.

I can personally relate to all of these situations. When students are over scheduled and busy, sometimes the only option to study is cramming the night before a test. As I’ve learned, cramming just makes everything come out all garbled on test day and makes a mind race with thoughts of worry and anxiety. This does not allow the brain to concentrate on the test questions (or the answers, for that matter).

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a student say “I failed my ACT.” In my opinion, it is impossible to fail the ACT or SAT. These tests do not solely demonstrate a student’s academic ability but rather how well they can take these tests. Sometimes this involves having the ability to control their thoughts and keep their cool while in a testing environment. Test prep classes can be beneficial for students who want to improve their ACT or SAT scores. Most of these classes offer tips and a lot of practice questions and review. The more a student practices, the better they get at taking the test.

Let’s think about it . . . how does an athlete or musician improve their skills? PRACTICE. One doesn’t become Michael Jordan overnight. In the world of instant gratification, it is difficult for students to be patient with this process. It’s the same concept for these tests. Honestly, this same “practice” can be applied to all academic subjects. The purpose of homework is (at least it should be) to practice the skills students learn in class.

As I alluded to earlier, I have learned throughout my life that anxiety can be more than test anxiety. It can impact a student’s daily life outside of school as well. I try to encourage my students and their families to be mindful of their anxieties and seek guidance if they feel it becomes a hindrance in any way. I have found that yoga and meditation are easy ways for students to learn basic coping skills with anxiety but, depending on the student, sometimes seeing a psychologist is necessary. Next month, I will offer advice from mental health professionals and others in the field of anxiety management to help you navigate the path of controlling test anxiety and beyond.

I find that my work is a delicate balance. Some may think my work encourages anxiety among my students but I find (and it is my goal) that I relieve anxiety around the college process. I recently read a book called “Peace is Every Step” by Thich Nhat Hanh. This book reminded me that “…happiness is possible only in the present moment.” Of course, planning for the future is a part of life. But even planning can only take place in the present moment.” With this thought, I’ll close with one short “in-out” meditation exercise from the same book mentioned above:

Breathing in, I calm my body.

Breathing out, I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment,

I know this is a wonderful moment!

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