Dear Mayo Clinic: My 10-year-old son loves school but last year he began to complain of stomachaches and headaches and would insist he had to stay home. In speaking to the teacher, we realized these episodes coincided with days he had a quiz or test. And now we have the added anxieties around the COVID-19 pandemic. What can I do to help him as we head into this new school year to ease his anxiety?
Answer: It’s normal for both adults and children to feel nervous once in a while. A little anxiety prior to an event like a presentation or test is common – and normal. For some, nervousness can actually be helpful but for others, like your son, the struggle with what we call “test anxiety” is significant and can manifest with physical symptoms. COVID-19 concerns and how the pandemic is affecting schooling, makes things more complex.
Test anxiety can affect anyone from primary and secondary school students to college students. While symptoms are varied, and can include trouble concentrating and sleeping the night before a test, some individuals report trouble breathing during a test, stomachache, headache or an elevated heartrate.
The challenge for many parents, especially of younger children, is confirming whether a complaint of headache, stomachache and other ailment is related to an actual illness or anxiety. Particularly with younger students, it may be hard to determine if they are struggling due to test anxiety or other issues. My recommendation is that parents talk to their child and monitor the onset of symptoms.
Be patient with your son and remind him that while tests are important for gauging comprehensive and progress, they are not the only measure of success and growth.
With the beginning of a new school year, it may be helpful to reach out proactively to your child’s teacher and advise them of your son’s anxiety. He or she may have ways to reduce stress in the classroom on the day of a test as well as techniques your daughter could apply during testing. If you find that your son becomes more stressed with a particular testing format, speak to his teacher about alternative testing options. For instance, if your son struggles with reading, he may benefit from verbal testing.
Other tips I offer parents to prepare children for tests and alleviate mild test anxiety, include:
- Be prepared. Having ample time to prepare and study is important to reduce stress.
- Create a consistent routine before a test, including getting plenty of rest the night prior to a test and eating a really good breakfast the day of. Breakfast should include plenty of protein to help with concentration. It’s also best to avoid sugary foods and drinks, as well as caffeine.
- Try different relaxation techniques. Before the big day, try various things to help your child ease nervousness. Depending upon the age of your child that could mean a stress ball or fidget spinner. Practice deep breathing or meditation.
- Be familiar with the test format. Is it multiple choice, short answer, an essay? Knowing that can help alleviate some of that anxiety, as well, and help students prepare.
If your child’s anxiety is not improving or your child seems to be struggling with learning overall, talk with your health care provider. Together you can determine if there is a larger issue that may need to be addressed or if your child can benefit from speaking to a psychologist or psychiatrist. ―Dr. Tina Ardon, Family Medicine, Mayo Clinic, Jacksonville, Florida
Information in this post was accurate at the time of its posting. Due to the fluid nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientific understanding, along with guidelines and recommendations, may have changed since the original publication date.
Check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for additional updates on COVID-19. For more information and all your COVID-19 coverage, go to the Mayo Clinic News Network and mayoclinic.org.