The sun has set and twenty little fingers and toes snuggle comfortably under the sheets. This is the scene in my home each night as I lie down with my three-year-old son and four-year-old daughter before bed. It’s a time of stillness and anticipation–my kids are ready to dive into the adventure of a story!
I know this love of story will follow them through their lives, not just because it’s a habit they cultivated early on, but because research shows humans are neurobiologically wired to engage in stories. I keep this natural affinity for story making in mind when helping children experiencing test anxiety.
Here’s what we know, anxiety about tests almost always goes far beyond the fear of failing a single exam or subject. A typical story from a child with test anxiety sounds something like this:
“I’m going to fail this test.” ->
“I’m not going to get into the honors class.” ->
“I’m not going to get into a good college.” ->
“I’m not going to get a good job.” ->
“I’m going to be a huge failure.”
As you can see, anxious thoughts quickly snowball into full on narratives of a challenging life path. There are so many missing data points in the story above, but it doesn’t matter… our brain fills in the gaps, often inaccurately. The science reveals that neurons in your brain fire in response to this type of storytelling–they send messages to other neurons and eventually create reinforced pathways in the brain. You may even be familiar with the phrase, neurons that fire together wire together.
The outcome is the story a child creates becomes a learned habit that repeats in their mind like a broken record. The story begins to define and own them. So, how do we challenge inaccurate exaggerated stories, and help kids manage test anxiety? In technical terms, we use techniques for self-directed neuroplasticity. In simpler terms, we create new stories to alter stuck patterns.
One method to do this is to recite positive affirmations that are rooted in science. Here is a sample of affirmations you can use that fall under 4 categories:
- Bring on the Jitteries! These affirmations are related to physical reactions from test anxiety such as a rapidly beating heart or sweaty palms. Research shows us that reframing anxious sensations from scary feelings to your body helping you rise to the challenge will actually do just that. Example affirmation: “I feel fidgety, my body is excited and ready to rise to the challenge of this test.”
- Keep it in Perspective. In order to create more accurate stories about our future, it’s important to maintain an accurate perspective of the meaning of this one test. Example affirmation: “My brain changes as I learn new things. My skills and talents will change and build over time and through life experience. If I’m not where you want to be right now, I have the capacity to improve.”
- I’m Prepared! These affirmations remind us of basic preparation tactics that can improve test scores. Example affirmation: “I’m going to let my brain rest before the test. Sleeping will help me do better on the test versus staying up and cramming. I won’t sacrifice my valuable sleep to keep studying. Instead, I’ll call it a night at a reasonable hour.”
- I’m Awesome! Every child I have ever worked with has a wellspring of strengths waiting to be utilized. These affirmations remind kids of how to do just that. Example affirmation: “I have many great strengths, and I can use them to help me do well on the test. I will think of five of my strengths and write them down. During the test, if I worry, I’ll turn to my strengths to help me.”