As learners across the country prepare for and write their last Grade assessments of the year, there are a lot of parents who are dealing with children overwhelmed with high levels of anxiety. Test anxiety is a real thing, and because the traditional South African assessment approach is to have learners write lots of tests, this can cause sustained negative impacts on some children during their school years.
According to Naledi Mokoena, an educational psychologist in private practise and educator at SACAP (South African College of Applied Psychology) parents need to be on alert for signs that their child is experiencing test anxiety and take action to help remedy the situation. She says, “Test anxiety is experienced as a significant physiological stress response when a child is faced with an upcoming assessment. This response is experienced internally. It is first important to differentiate between stress and anxiety. Stress is an expected human response that a child will experience around academic activities that are more demanding than other standard school activities.
Anxiety, however, is a heightened response to a stressful event that can impact on concentration, retention and recall. Therefore, a child experiencing heightened test anxiety is likely to under-perform in an assessment, which means it is not a meaningful measure of their actual knowledge and understanding.”
It’s this potential lack of effectiveness when it comes to assessments that concerns many educators and school leaders. Koa Academy Principal and Co-Founder, Mark Anderson says, “Assessments are supposed to be tools for learning. We test knowledge and understanding so that kids are empowered to reflect on their learning and identify areas where they need to focus so that that they are continuously enhancing knowledge and understanding. But if the test does not accurately assess their actual knowledge and understanding because they were overwhelmed by anxiety and unable to show what they can do, then the test was not just a meaningless event, it was also harmful to them.
Poor test results damage a child’s self-confidence and leads them to believe that they just can’t ‘do’ a certain subject or a segment of content. So, at Koa, we think differently about how we do assessments so that they are tools that kids can use confidently to reflect on and advance their learning.”
Finding The Balance Between Stress And Anxiety
Mokoena and Anderson agree that the aim is not to eliminate all stress from a child’s experience. Mokoena points out that stress in anticipation of writing tests is normal, and that it alerts the child to a notable change in their school life and should prompt and motivate them to focus on meeting the upcoming challenges.
Anderson says, “I always say to our Koa parents that I don’t mind if their kids are under a healthy amount of pressure. This is manageable stress that helps them grow and develop. Facing a challenge is stimulating and inspiring – it helps to develop grit, perseverance and leads to self-mastery. However, there’s a tipping of the scales when this healthy pressure becomes sustained anxiety that impedes a child’s learning, impacts negatively on their well-being and sets them up to deliver sub-par performances.”
Mokoena advises parents to be on the lookout for signs that their child is not coping with the rigours of end-of-year exams. She says, “There are both physical and behavioural indications of test anxiety, and parents need to pay attention to these because often a child may not be able to find the words to communicate their experienced anxiety.”
During study and exam time, parents may notice:
- Changes in mood and demeanour – for example, a child who develops a shorter temper or less tolerance in dealing with people during exam time
- Changes in eating and sleeping patterns
- Loss of interest in enjoyable activities
- Restlessness, fidgeting, or difficulty in remaining still particularly during study time
- Distraction and avoidance of study time
- Physical changes – such as elevated levels of perspiration; different breathing patterns, palpitations and tightness in the chest; frequent headaches or stomach aches
There Are Various Strategies That Parents Can Use To Help Their Child Manage Test Anxiety:
- Acknowledge your child’s feelings, and do not blame them for feeling overwhelmed. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with your child. Test anxiety, which is a form of performance anxiety, is common human experience for both children and adults. Be compassionate and understanding so that your child is in no doubt that they have your full support
- Teach your child deep breathing and help them practice this relaxation technique regularly so that it can become a habitual response to feeling overwhelmed
- Help your child organise their study time with a schedule and a daily timetable that they are in charge of. Taking control and tackling study tasks one at a time, can build confidence in their ability to cope
- Make sure your child’s study plan includes breaks that take into account their endurance when it comes to focus and concentration
- Make sure there is scheduled time for them to be physically active every day, as this helps to release endorphins which relieve mental stress
- Ensure that your child eats healthy foods and gets sufficient sleep
- If necessary, get advice or support from a professional such as an educational psychologist
While these practices can help families cope with a child that has test anxiety in the short term, they don’t address the root cause of test anxiety, which lies in the profusion of testing in South African schools. Anderson recommends that parents fully consider assessment strategy when making their school choices. He says, “Parents should question a school’s approach to assessment and feel comfortable that their child’s school offers productive assessments.”
Assessments For Real-world Application
As an online school, Koa uses a variety of assessments that are embedded in the learning activities which are less focused on rote memorisation and are rather focused on mastery and application skills. These types of assessments give learners, parents and teachers rich feedback about the learner’s knowledge and understanding of content. Anderson says, “As an IEB-accredited school, that’s the Independent Examinations Board, our philosophy of assessment includes the all-important application of knowledge. The purpose of education is to prepare children for the real world. So, we don’t want to see if the learners can simply repeat what they have heard in the classroom, we want to see if they can apply their knowledge in a real-world context.”