How to Help Your Kids Handle Test Stress

It may be a dance or piano recital, SAT test or mid-term exam for your kids; a job interview or important conference call for you. Perfectly prepared, you became more anxious as time gets close and fail to deliver at your best.  Does it mean that you or your kid are just not built for stressful situations and should avoid them altogether?


Last week I stumbled upon a very important article in NYTimes by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman  "Why Can Some Kids Handle Stress While Others Fall Apart"  In case you don't have a subscription or time to read all 6 pages, here is a short summary.

Some of us are striving in a competitive stressful environment (school tests, sport or arts competitions) while others worry and perform worse than they could in a regular "peaceful" surrounding. Turns out that people of this second type can be trained to embrace the stress and out-perform on a long run. So the answer in not less testing but more testing of the right kind.

Few recent studies pinpointed an "anxiety-related gene" that can have either Worrier or Warrior state.  Since we all inherit one gene from our mother and one from our father, a quarter of the population has two Worrier genes, a quarter has two Warrior genes and a half of the population has one of each genes.

Worrier gene gives us cognitive advantage: better reasoning, concentration, higher IQ. And this advantage appears to increase with the number of years of education. However, this advantage disappears at the time of stress and leads to under-performance.

Warrior gene, on opposite, lights up at the time of competition. People with to Warrior genes are "like Superman emerging from the phone booth in times of crisis; their abilities to concentrate and solve problems go up." (BC professor Adele Diamond)

Should Worrier types avoid stress altogether? No. "In fact, shielding them could be the worst response, depriving them of the chance to acclimate to recurring stressors. Training, preparation and repetition defuse the Worrier’s curse." (UCSD professor, Douglas C. Johnson) Some early studies show that " Worrier-genes can still handle incredible stress — as long as they are well trained. Even some Navy SEALs have the Worrier genes, so you can literally be a Worrier-gene Warrior. "
"There are many psychological and physiological reasons that long-term stress is harmful, but the science of elite performance has drawn a different conclusion about short-term stress. Studies that compare professionals with amateur competitors — whether concert pianists, male rugby or female volleyball players — show that professionals feel just as much anxiety as amateurs. The difference is in how they interpret their anxiety. The amateurs view it as detrimental, while the professionals tend to view stress as energizing. It gets them to focus."
Studies show that a similar mental shift  helps students in test-taking situations. Grades of the students improved only after their were told to see stress as beneficial.
"David and Christi Bergin, professors of educational and developmental psychology at the University of Missouri, have begun a pilot study of junior high school students participating in math competitions. They have observed that, within a few weeks, students were tackling more complex problems than they would even at the end of a yearlong class. Some were even doing college-level math. That was true even for students who didn’t like math before joining the team and were forced into it by their parents. Knowing they were going up against other teams in front of an audience, the children took ownership over the material. They became excited about discovering ever more advanced concepts, having realized each new fact was another weapon in their intellectual arsenal.
Maybe the best thing about academic competitions is that they benefit both Warriors and Worriers equally. The Warriors get the thrilling intensity their minds are suited for, where they can shine. The Worriers get the gradual stress inoculation they need, so that one day they can do more than just tolerate stress — they can embrace it. And through the cycle of preparation, performance and recovery, what they learn becomes ingrained."
So, what can help any Worrier to do better at a test time? It is:
  • training, preparation and repetition
  • change of attitude toward stress - looking at it as excitement, energizing physiological process
  • participation in more tests, especially group-type confidence-boosting academic competitions
Top image by db photography, distributed under CCL.


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