Let’s get some perspective on anxiety. It can be a good thing. Anxiety helps children make safe choices and adults act responsibly. But, too much anxiety is unhelpful. It stops kids having a go at play, socializing, and learning.
Each school year creates social and academic stress for students. Performance pressure crushes bright, anxious students with perfectionist traits, generally anxious kids, and those with specific learning disorders. It affects children with autism who have high levels of social anxiety. School is also hard for “normal” students.
Assessment Can Lead To Anxiety and Frustration
Relentless testing of students threatens to replace education. Instead of young children learning through play and exploration and older kids being motivated to learn through failure, they are ranked and plotted on a statistical table. Kids are assessed on what they don’t know. Not on what they can achieve. This makes anxious children more anxious. It incites anger in parents and frustration in educators.
In the US, the Common Core State Standards challenges students and teachers. In Australia, the National Assessment Program for Literacy and Numeracy, known as NAPLAN, creates great anxiety for students.
Curriculum debate and discussions about national education standards have become a circular conversation. They won’t be going away. How can parents and educators join in the discourse in a positive way and support kids so that they cope emotionally and academically with constant tests?
Happy Children Are The Best Learners
We have to respect our education systems and teachers. They work for our children. It is a parental responsibility to provide a safe, secure, and nurturing environment for their children. This is essential in early childhood. It is the best way to give kids the social and emotional strengths that will help them cope with school. This includes academic testing.
Educators tell us that happy children learn best. As a parent, be aware of the needs of your child as they progress through school. Don’t sweat about their grades. Prepare them for learning prior to school entry. Give them rich language exposure. Read alongside daily; sing, talk and play with them.
Monitor electronic screen use so that it doesn’t steal imagination and time from childhood. Keep family life simple. Have meals together and spend time with your young child. Be there when your teenager needs you. To do this your family has to stay emotionally and socially connected. We have many types of families in our complex lives. Children cope with this diversity and so should we.
Parents and children can take positive steps to stem the anxiety that pervades their lives and impacts on kids who face compulsory and recurring academic testing.
What you can do as a parent
- Believe in your child and be kind.
- Listen to your child – to what they say and what they do.
- Acknowledge the worries of your anxious child, but stay calm so that you can parent effectively.
- Don’t fuel your child’s anxiety by showing them your stress and distress.
- If you can’t stay calm or happy, seek support to strengthen your adult mental health.
- Avoid “rescuing” your anxious child. This prevents them from learning through failure. It stops them growing strong emotional resilience. They need this tool to “survive and thrive” in a busy, anxious and digital world.
- If you have an anxious child who doesn’t have a learning disorder, prepare them for tests. This may involve explanation, proportionate practice and a visual chart to inform them when testing will occur. This helps them plan. Never preempt testing with expectation or unrealistic goal setting. Focus on your child and not the test.
- Try positive encouragement when children have a go at something, but don’t over-praise. If your young child draws a picture of a rabbit it is better to say, “I like the way you have drawn his floppy ears and I’m looking forward to your next picture of him”, rather than, “That’s the best rabbit I have ever seen”. Why would your child draw another one if you have already seen their “best” rabbit!
- Limit choices – they only stress an anxious child. Take charge of childhood anxiety before it becomes adolescent anxiety or depression.
- Provide consistent rules and firm boundaries which aren’t rigid or controlling. This keeps an anxious child “safe”.
- Be “reflective” with your parenting choices. Make decisions when calm, not impulsively when you are angry.
- Parent your child after they have an emotional meltdown and not while they are exploding or imploding.
- Forcing the very anxious child to do something they fear without adequate support and preparation can cause them to develop oppositional behaviours. They may physically strike out at you or withdraw into their shell and become depressed.
- If your child has severe, debilitating anxiety such as academic and social withdrawal or school refusal, you must get professional help. This can be with a doctor and psychologist. Sometimes your child may need to see a psychiatrist. School and family will also have to come on board to help. This is a time when it’s okay to seek help.
What your child can do
- Ask for help and know that you will listen, their teacher will respond and that their voice will be heard.
- Learn some strategies to manage their worries. This may be as simple as doing some “huff and puff” breathing when they feel their “worry monster” rousing. Breathing techniques which help children relax and other strategies can be taught by a psychologist or counsellor. You will have great ideas too – you know your child best.
- A coloured card system can work for kids with sensory processing problems. This includes children with anxiety, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. When a child is becoming upset they can hold up a yellow card to show their teacher. This allows the teacher to follow the child’s action plan. This may be quieting the class environment or giving the child a “sensory break”. The child can move to a space in the classroom where they can read a book or listen to music with headphones. Once they have self-settled they can return to their work.
Anxious children need to feel in control and not controlled. Adults have to think about how they can facilitate this with a compassion-focused approach at home and at school.
Constantly testing children isn’t the best way to build up the emotional strength of a child. If your child has a severe learning disorder in reading, writing or math, it may not be appropriate to make them fail on early standardized tests. They must engage with school and learning or they will give up. Speak to your child’s teacher. Caring parents and teachers who “get” the child, “walk in their shoes” and inspire the yearn to learn will help children achieve.
Children who have learned to cope with failure by picking themselves up and having another go will reap success. As parents, we should think about what that means for the child. For some children, being self-confident, having a passion and motivation to create, innovate, and learn is the best result from an education. This goal is not predicted by a score on a standardized test when your child is ten years of age.
The assessment of core learning areas does not define your child – or you as a parent. It doesn’t indicate the dedication and ability of their teachers. If you know this and treat your child the same, irrespective of whether they have a school test day or not, you are helping your child.
Dr. Elizabeth Green MB BS (Hons) is a paediatrician with 25 years of experience, focusing on children with complex neurodevelopmental issues such as anxiety, ADHD, learning disorders, and autism. Graduating with honours from Melbourne University in 1982, she gained experience with the Royal Flying Doctor Service before pursuing paediatrics. Dr. Green advocates for children's well-being in today's social climate and contributes to media platforms. She also played a significant role in the National Children's Commissioner's report on self-harm and suicidal behavior in children.