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Calming pretest panic

Every other Friday morning, 8-year-old Melissa would come down to breakfast complaining of a severe headache or stomachache. She never had a fever or any other symptoms, and by late morning, the little absentee’s symptoms always vanished.

At first, Melissa’s mom, Linda, was annoyed with her second-grader, assuming she was faking illness to stay home and watch TV. But after a meeting with Melissa’s teacher, Linda figured out that her daughter got “sick” on days when the class was having a big test.

Like many children, Melissa was suffering from what psychologists call “test anxiety,” an often paralyzing fear that makes children tense up—their palms sweat, their hearts pound, their minds freeze. For some students, pretest jitters become debilitating, causing insomnia, headaches, dizziness and nausea.

What’s a parent to do? First, say child psychologists, talk to kids about their fears and feelings. Sometimes just allowing them to vent and then responding with a few reassuring words is all that’s needed. But avoid telling an anxious child to “stay calm and do your best.” It doesn’t help. You wouldn’t tell a boy who can’t swim to relax when he’s in water over his head. Instead, experts suggest, stress that your love is unconditional— and not tied to how well your child does in school. Often, children believe if they don’t get an A or B, their parents will be disappointed.

But if talking about test anxiety does little to ease it, try these time-tested tips:

• Set up a study schedule a week before a big test to avoid last-minute cramming—and panic.

• Help your children conceptualize—not memorize. Sure, kids have to do some memorizing; that’s how most of us learned our multiplication tables. But getting children to really understand the material, perhaps by having them explain it to you, will lead to test success.

• Make practice tests at home to help little scholars become familiar with different test formats and different kinds of questions, such as open-ended versus multiple choice. This also helps children hone skills such as following test directions.

• Teach positive thinking. Tell kids to say, “It’s OK if I don’t get an A. Learning is what’s important.”

• Praise hard work, not good grades. Studies now show that children praised for good grades actually show less persistence and lower performance than those praised for their effort.

• Have kids get a good night’s sleep, wear comfortable clothing and eat a healthy breakfast before the test.

• Don’t tell children to relax—show them how by teaching deep-breathing techniques or visualization exercises such as imagining a perfect day at the beach.

Teaching schoolchildren like Melissa how to ease test anxiety at a young age will go a long way toward preparing them for the stressful situations that will undoubtedly come up as they get older.