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Exam Anxiety- Among School children

Instead of wor­ry­ing about what you can­not con­trol, shift your ener­gy to what you can create.” 

- Roy T. Ben­nett, author

What is Anxiety?

Anx­i­ety is the feel­ing a per­son feels when they expect some­thing stress­ful to hap­pen. When an indi­vid­ual is stressed, his body releas­es the hor­mone adren­a­line, which pre­pares him for dan­ger. Adren­a­line caus­es phys­i­cal symp­toms such as sweat­ing, rac­ing heart and rapid breath­ing. These symp­toms can be mild or intense. Anx­i­ety in chil­dren man­i­fests itself in dif­fer­ent ways depend­ing on the age of the child. It can also be referred to as antic­i­pa­to­ry anx­i­ety, sit­u­a­tion­al anx­i­ety, or eval­u­a­tion anx­i­ety. Some anx­i­ety is nor­mal and often helps to stay men­tal­ly and phys­i­cal­ly alert. Low­er per­for­mance does not occur because of intel­lec­tu­al prob­lems or poor aca­d­e­m­ic prepa­ra­tion, but because test­ing sit­u­a­tions cre­ate a sense of threat for those expe­ri­enc­ing test anx­i­ety; it could be a result from a sense of threat then dis­rupts the func­tion of atten­tion and memory.

Signs and symptoms:

  • In humans, anx­i­ety symp­toms are dis­trib­uted along a con­tin­u­um, and dif­fer­ent lev­els of anx­i­ety symp­toms pre­dict outcomes.
  • Reac­tions con­sist of increased heart rate, stress hor­mone secre­tion, rest­less­ness, alert­ness, and fear of a poten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous environment.
  • When an indi­vid­ual has feel­ings of low com­pe­tence about their abil­i­ties, they are like­ly to expect neg­a­tive out­comes such as fail­ure under uncer­tain con­di­tions. Assess­ment sit­u­a­tions, includ­ing tests and exams, are thus per­ceived as more threat­en­ing by stu­dents with low competence.
  • Symp­toms of test anx­i­ety can range from mod­er­ate to severe. “Stu­dents who show mild symp­toms are still able to per­form rel­a­tive­ly well on exams. Oth­er stu­dents with severe anx­i­ety often expe­ri­ence pan­ic attacks.”
  • Phys­i­cal symp­toms include: headache, upset stom­ach, feel­ings of fear and dread, short­ness of breath, sweat­ing, pac­ing or shak­ing, cry­ing, rac­ing thoughts and bow­el movements.

Exam anxiety consists of:

  • Phys­i­o­log­i­cal over-arousal – often called emo­tion­al­i­ty. Somat­ic symp­toms include headache, stom­ach ache, nau­sea, diar­rhea, exces­sive sweat­ing, short­ness of breath, dizzi­ness or faint­ing, rapid heart­beat, and dry mouth. Test anx­i­ety can also lead to pan­ic attacks, in which a stu­dent may expe­ri­ence sud­den intense fear, dif­fi­cul­ty breath­ing, and extreme discomfort.
  • Fear and dread – mal­adap­tive cog­ni­tion. This includes cat­a­stroph­ic expec­ta­tions of gloom and doom, fear of fail­ure, ran­dom thoughts and feel­ings of inad­e­qua­cy, self-judg­ment, neg­a­tive self-talk, frus­tra­tion, and unfa­vor­able com­par­isons to others.
  • Cognitive/behavioral – poor con­cen­tra­tion, “loss of focus” or “freez­ing”, con­fu­sion and poor orga­ni­za­tion. Inabil­i­ty to con­cen­trate leads to impaired per­for­mance in tests. Drilling dur­ing the test or avoid­ing the test alto­geth­er. Stu­dents often report that they “wiped out” even though they stud­ied well enough for the test.
  • Emo­tion­al – low self-esteem, depres­sion, anger and feel­ings of hopelessness.

Strategies to prevent or manage anxiety in the classroom:

Educate students about anxiety — Providing emotional support.
  • Encour­age the stu­dent to use self-sooth­ing or anx­i­ety-reduc­ing tech­niques taught by the coun­selor or therapist.
  • Allow the stu­dent to have a self-sooth­ing object or fam­i­ly pic­tures close at hand.
    Build in “call home” breaks (for stu­dents with sep­a­ra­tion anxiety).
  • Have the stu­dent seek help from a des­ig­nat­ed staff mem­ber with men­tal health exper­tise when expe­ri­enc­ing anxiety.
Provide a classroom with open communication:
  • Arrange for class­room seat­ing where the stu­dent is most com­fort­able (near the door, at the front of the room, near a teacher or friend).
  • Have the stu­dent sit in the back of the room or near the exit dur­ing assembly.
  • Assign the stu­dent a des­ig­nat­ed bud­dy for lunch, recess, and/or hallways.
  • Allow pref­er­en­tial group­ing for field trips so that the stu­dent is with a teacher or friends.
  • Give the stu­dent a “break” to walk down the hall, get a drink, or leave the class­room when needed.
  • Make a plan to make up time after an absence or ill­ness (for exam­ple, excuse missed home­work or have a known time frame for prepar­ing work).
  • Inform in advance of planned teacher sub­sti­tu­tions or oth­er changes in routine.
  • Give the stu­dent notice and more time before upcom­ing tran­si­tions, such as before recess and lunch, and prac­tice tran­si­tions in a pri­vate or low-stress environment.
Teach and discuss positive coping skills with students:
  • Clear­ly state and/or write down expec­ta­tions and con­se­quences in the classroom.
  • Break tasks into small­er parts.
  • Check in fre­quent­ly for under­stand­ing and “emo­tion­al temperature.”
  • Before you call the stu­dent, give the stu­dent a sig­nal and give them a sig­nal to opt out of receiv­ing calls.
  • Offer writ­ten instruc­tions in addi­tion to spo­ken instructions.
  • Free the stu­dent from read­ing aloud or demon­strat­ing work in front of the class.
  • Have the stu­dent present the projects to the teacher, not to the whole class.
  • Teach stu­dents to focus their atten­tion on a spe­cif­ic sub­ject (the sound of the heater, how their body feels, etc. as it could be exact­ly like mind­ful­ness) and keep them focused on study habits and focus on dai­ly prac­tice tests.


- Mufina, MHP, M.S.C.P., D.M.H.,

Psychologist, Mental Health Counsellor,

Chennai, TN, India.

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