Black Cat Cafe


A parent left a comment on the post about the Hardest Kids to Tutor, asking for suggestions to reduce test anxiety:

And how does one stop test anxiety in it’s tracks? I have twins who both have it. One takes medication for it. But, to stop it when it pops up-impossible unless you want a neurotic child.

Start with the following:

1) Buy the book Test Success by Dr. Ben Bernstein. It’s filled with practical techniques that show how to recognize the signs of, and how to combat test anxiety. Dr. Bernstein’s suggestions include breathing and relaxation exercises, uncrossing your arms, keeping both feet on the ground, etc. Definitely worth reading.

2) More practice leads to less anxiety. I’d even go so far as try to create anxiety producing conditions. For instance, I was practicing with my daughter the other day and she shushed me because I was being too noisy (ever so slightly, and apparently, noise makes her anxious). I said NO! Because the kids at the SAT were noisier. In fact, they stretch their arms into your space, and yawn, and drop pencils and calculators, etc. Dr. Bernstein says that you have to cultivate the ability to focus—despite problems.

Sheldon Word-Nerd offered similar suggestions in the comments:

1) Try relaxation training and identifying the types of thoughts/habits that spur anxiety. Then you just try to develop a different response to those thoughts. It’s a little like CBT therapy. For example, write down how you feel when you “freeze.” I’ve had students realize that their beliefs are just plain silly when they’re on paper in front of them. Kids tend to take one example of struggling with a math question to mean “I’m terrible at math,” but they won’t label themselves as grumpy people if they have one bad day. They need to learn to cut themselves the same slack when it comes to not knowing how to do a question!

2) Prepare for the anxiety, just like you prepare for the SAT. Make up scenarios – even completely ridiculous ones – that might happen on test day, then come up with a plan for how to respond. If a kid worries about getting sick during the test, strategize about what to do if that happens. You’re over-preparing, of course, but just as you said above, preparation is a major anxiety-fighter.

Don’t rule out test anxiety if you’re underperforming. The stress levels have to be just right in order to perform optimally.


The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT will be published on February 25, 2014.

Illustrations by Jennifer Orkin Lewis


  • There’s an interesting relationship between stress and learning. Is it Willingham who says you need just the right amount – too much and you shut down and get overwhelmed; too little and the brain doesn’t remember (emotions help anchor info into your brain)

    But test anxiety – I think it is much more prevalent that we think and going undiagnosed in school. As you’ve mention before, Debbie, there are specific strategies that are easy to teach kids – shoulders down, deep breaths – that every kid should know.

    • Dr. Bernstein talks about the perfect amount of stress too. You need a little to get you going, but not too much.

      When I read that, it occurred to me that I did WORST on the tests where I felt TOO calm!

      • Yes – Students will call me hysterical on Saturday afternoons, convinced they bombed the test. Usually, they did fine. Kids that were blase tend to do worse – go figure!

        • I am textbook, right down the line!

        • satverbaltutor

          Yeah, I worry most about the 500/550-ish kids who tell me blithely that the test was “easy.” NOTHING makes me worry more than those words. There’s a reason I don’t tutor kids like that short-term anymore: they’re just strong enough to get by in school without anyone noticing how much they’re missing (some of them are even “A” students), but the holes are there. Inevitably, some of them are so big as to make short-term strategy-based prep a virtual waste of time and money.

          For kids who are stronger and have nerves, I spend a lot of time trying to interrupt the panic process. I actually do it with everyone, regardless of whether they seem nervous or not. We spend lots of time talking about what happens when you do when you don’t know the answer to the question, or even know what the question is asking. They need to come to grips with the fact that they won’t know how to do every single question immediately, or even at all, and learn to manage that reality accordingly so that they don’t freak out during the test. In the end, the only thing they can control is their reaction; just staying calm is half the game. I usually spend a fair amount of time walking them through what I do when I don’t see the answer immediately. It helps them to see that it’s normal not to know things, that I don’t know everything — and that I don’t even *pretend* to know everything — and that sometimes I have the same reaction to questions that they do.

  • Sheldon the WordNerd

    Thanks for the love Debbie. I totally agree that NO anxiety is not good for students hoping for better than average scores. Every serious athlete out there knows that a bit of anxious anticipation helps with peak performance. Same goes for testing.

    That’s funny about the hysterical post-test kids Stacey. Probably a lot of them have just been so worked up for so long that it’s total catharsis :) But I bet sometimes it signals that they KNOW they did well and want to be reassured by a third party, but think they’re SUPPOSED to be freaked out…OMG! When I was in college there was almost a competitiveness to the level of anxiety you said you were experiencing during exams (that and a belief if you weren’t seen on campus in the rattiest flannel pants you owned you clearly weren’t studying hard enough).

    • :-)

    • My worst SAT scores were on the test when I was the calmest. I should have known, walking in, that I felt too calm for my own good.