Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Tips for taming test anxiety (because even gifted kids get anxious)

test anxiety in childhoodEven gifted kids get anxious. Contrary to popular belief, giftedness does not necessarily endow children with the confidence to sail through exams without a worry. Many gifted children, adolescents and college students suffer from disabling test anxiety that affects performance, achievement and self-esteem. Test anxiety pops up at the most inopportune times, and can be completely unexpected, an occasional nuisance, or a chronic obstacle. Its origins may be simple or complex, and whether you are a sufferer or the parent of one, you can learn how to overcome this burden.

Identify behaviors that interfere

Determine whether the reason for test anxiety is as simple as lack of sleep, poor nutrition, or inadequate preparation. Many gifted children are so accustomed to exerting little effort in school that they may be shocked when they finally encounter an exam that is challenging or one where they are caught unprepared. Often they have never learned basic study skills, and may be reluctant to ask for help. Concepts such as setting aside structured time free from distraction, knowing the material completely (yes, actually reading the whole textbook), and confronting procrastination are new to them.

Identify physiological triggers

As gifted individuals are frequently oversensitive, their nervous system may be primed to recognize and overreact to minor sensations that others might easily ignore. A slightly increased heart rate, a tense stomach, or sweaty palms, all normal physiological signs of readiness for a new and somewhat stressful situation, might be misinterpreted by an overly reactive person as symptoms of panic and fear, resulting in an even greater escalation of symptoms. Instead, these signs need to be seen as evidence of readiness for a challenge, similar to the surge of adrenaline that occurs before a race.

Identify negative emotions and attitudes

Sometimes, test anxiety stems from worrying about performance, fear of failure, perfectionism, concerns about maintaining a particular status or GPA, or low self-esteem. Some gifted children can be driven to achieve, and may worry that their test performance may not reflect their passion and mastery of a topic. Others may fear disappointing parents or teachers if they receive a less than perfect grade. Some doubt themselves and question whether they can keep up with the other students, and assume that test scores will confirm or invalidate their abilities, and even define their sense of self-worth. Sometimes these fears can be addressed through "cognitive-behavioral" techniques that challenge faulty assumptions and distorted beliefs, such as developing positive self-statements that challenge negative thoughts, and learning relaxation and mindfulness techniques to stay focused and calm. Other times, counseling may be necessary to understand and overcome these difficulties.

So what can you do to improve your confidence and keep calm during tests?

Work on the basics (develop good study skills!)

  • Study thoroughly – know your material completely (no skimming or Spark notes)
  • Use good study skills – outlining, note cards, highlighting, writing summaries, etc.
  • Ask for help when you need it – get help with difficult material and with developing study skills
  • Set aside a structured time and place for homework that is quiet and free from distractions. Turn off the phone and message alerts on the computer.

Prepare for the test

  •  Get enough sleep and eat a good breakfast.
  •  Avoid conversations with other students about their worries about the test, since this can increase your anxiety.
  • Ask your teacher for a change in seating if your seat is in a very distracting location.
  • Practice stress management techniques. These can include meditation, deep breathing, mindfulness, yoga, and relaxation techniques. While sometimes these techniques can be learned through books, CDs or classes, meeting with a psychologist, yoga teacher or meditation teacher may be beneficial.
  • Practice a technique called imaginal rehearsal. Picture yourself at your desk in school feeling relaxed and confident, as you calmly take the test, free from anxiety.
  • Challenge negative beliefs and develop positive self-talk. Identify some of the negative thoughts that create self-doubt, such as assuming you will fail, or that you will become anxious during the test. Develop statements that can challenge these assumptions. These can include short statements to boost confidence, such as, "I know I can handle this," to challenges related to specific worries, such as "I don't have to get an A to win my family's approval." Some books listed below offer suggestions for this technique, but a psychologist may be helpful if you need more support with this.  

Strategies for test-taking

  • Do something relaxing or distracting right before the test.
  • Start working on the test immediately. Plan what you want to do first or just start writing, but don’t hesitate.
  • Skip questions that seem too difficult – you can return to them later. Plan to use the entire class period for the test. Outline your response for essay questions.
  • Don’t aim for perfection.
  • Use deep breathing techniques to calm yourself.
  • Use mindfulness techniques to “let go” of anxiety. Notice distracting thoughts, but don't “follow them.” Let them drift away and refocus on the test.
  • Take short breaks during the test to close your eyes, breathe deeply and relax.
  • Use a squeeze ball to release tension, or tense and relax your muscles.
  • Remind yourself that some tension is normal; use it as an ally like adrenaline in a race. A pounding heart means you are excited and eager to take on the test, not that you are afraid of it.
  • Repeat a calming “mantra” to yourself. Identify a calming phrase or word  that you can use to calm yourself and feel grounded.
  • Remind yourself that negative self-talk is unproductive and remember your positive self-statements.                                                

These steps listed above are suggestions that you or your child could try. Taking an inventory of problem behaviors that can be changed is an essential first step. Some books that offer guidance are listed below. Negative attitudes and low self-esteem are often the most difficult symptoms of test anxiety to address, though, since they are not easily remedied by simple behavioral tools. Gifted children and adolescents who are burdened with self-doubt, perfectionism and low self-esteem frequently benefit from the support and guidance of a therapist who can help them understand and overcome these perceptions, and stop the cycle of anxiety before it escalates and becomes a chronic problem.

If you have found other tools that have worked, please let us know in the comments section. Thanks!

Suggested readings:
Biegel, G. (2009). The stress reduction workbook for teens: Mindfulness skills to help you deal with stress. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Bourne, E. (2010). The anxiety and phobia workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.    
Burns, D. (2008). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York: Harper.      
Schab, L. (2009). The anxiety workbook for teens: Activities to help you deal with anxiety and worry. Oakland, CA: Harbinger Publications.


  1. Off course, even gifted children feel anxious for some times. They're not perfect beings and they also experience failures. That could be a reason of their anxiety because they can't accept failure.

  2. Abby,
    I agree with you completely. Gifted children often are not used to failure, and this increases their anxiety. I wrote another blog post about the importance of allowing gifted children to have the opportunity to fail. http://giftedchallenges.blogspot.com/2013/08/a-life-lesson-for-gifted-children.html. Thanks for your comments.