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Test Stress in Children: Rx with Brain Friendly Studying

Tests are often one of the most stressful experiences facing children

Test Stress in Children: Rx with Brain Friendly Studying Skills for Test Success

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Source: Fotosearch Royalty Free Images

Tests are often one of the most stressful experiences facing children.

Because we can’t make them go away like bad dreams, we can help reduce that stress by guiding kids to study using brain-research based strategies that increase memory and understanding.

Neurons that fire together, wire together

Flickr Free Use Photos Group
Source: Flickr Free Use Photos Group

Research about brain neuroplasticity shows that the more frequently information is used the more the circuits holding it are activated. This activation is the “firing” that means stronger, more durable “wiring” of the memory. In addition, when brain circuits holding new learning are activated in association with existing memories, the more powerful the brain cell networks. This is because new connections form between the new and the known. These shared connections mean that when one memory circuit is activated, that will activate the other. The more new learning memory circuits are used, especially in doing things that are meaningful to your child, the stronger the memory networks become. These stronger connections will help your child recall the necessary memories and knowledge efficiently and make their storage more durable and long-term memory (even over the summer away from school).

The following “brain-building” activities can help you strengthen your child’s brain networks, which can improve studying and test-taking abilities:

Quasar/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Quasar/Wikimedia Commons

Curiosity and Discover so children want to know they have to learn

Learning is most memorable when it is done by the learner rather than information being dispensed and practiced by rote drill. Increase memory and understanding by finding a hook in the material to be learned that will stimulate your child’s curiosity. With that buy-in, he’ll want to know what he has to learn. The brain will value the information and he’ll put in the effort to really understand it or practice it to achieve mastery.

Make learning personally relevant to your child

Quasar/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Quasar/Wikimedia Commons

When children are interested in learning because it relates to their lives, interests, or experiences, brain scans reveal that more regions of their brains are activated when the information is acquired and recalled. When children make connections between the new subject they are learning and what they already know, stronger links bind the new with the known.

You can help your children link new learning to the “maps” of related memories already present in their brains. Find out what they are about to learn or the general topic of a unit and use your knowledge of their interests and past experiences to light up their awareness of how what they are learning connects to their lives and interests.

When information has no relevance to children’s lives, it’s easy for them to forget it.

Flickr Free Use Photos Group
Source: Flickr Free Use Photos Group

That’s why it’s important for children to keep their sense of wonder about learning and using what they learn in ways that are meaningful to them and rehearsing it by mental manipulation, not passive memorization.

Help your child make learning connections

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Source: Fotosearch Royalty Free Images

For example, if your child is interested in flint arrowheads and will be tested on Native Americans, you can ask, “What tools, like the arrowheads we found in the desert, did the Arapaho use to plant and harvest crops, build homes, or make clothing?” You may want to take a walk in a wooded park or trail around your home to investigate what resources your child could use if he had to make his own shelter or clothing where you now live.

You can also try asking your child to create analogies, metaphors, or acronyms to connect new information with what he may already know. An example of an analogy to remember “metamorphosis” is, “The metamorphosis of caterpillar to butterfly is like the changing of the seeds we planted into sprouts.” Children may need some help or hints to develop their analogies. For example, you can ask, “In what way was the American Revolution like the baseball players’ strike? How are human hands like bats’ wings?”

Talk about real world problems

For example, you can help your child with math by applying it to a household project. You can ask, “If we want to paint your room and we know the walls and ceiling are all the same size as the floor, could we measure the floor to see how many square feet we need to paint? Let’s try it and see if we can figure out how much paint we would need and how much it would cost.”

my own Judy Willis
Source: my own Judy Willis

Connect learning with current events

If your child is studying for a test on the Bill of Rights, instead of rereading them over and over, ask, “If you were a Supreme Court Justice what would you use from the Bill of Rights to guide your decision about the rights of bloggers to report hurtful, unsubstantiated rumors?”

Ask children how they can apply what they’re learning outside of school

Questions can include, “How might learning the proper use of commas be important if you want to write a series of books like the Harry Potter series? How do you think your aunt uses the information you are studying about electric circuits when she designs hybrid cars?”

Show your child the value of what she is learning. You may want to ask questions like, “Why might this information be useful or important to you if you were an explorer, aircraft designer, choreographer, soccer coach, or computer game animator?”

When reviewing, try different ways of engaging your child. You can simulate a television interview show where you are the interviewer and ask your child questions as if she is the guest expert on the topic.

Have your child “teach” someone else what she’s learned

Invite your child to teach the information to a sibling, other family member at the dinner table or during a car ride, or even the family dog. Or have your child write a letter to a friend or relative detailing what surprised her and what new information she learned at school that day. You may also want to have your child summarize the day’s lessons in a “historian log” or “scientist journal,” complete with personalized artwork, diagrams, souvenir postcards, or photos from exhibits or places you visited related to the unit of study.

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Source: Fotosearch Royalty Free Images

Help your child experience learning through multiple senses

When you use several of your child’s senses to stimulate learning, the information is stored in more circuits throughout the brain. Encourage review of what your child reads by asking him to draw up diagrams or acting out the particular story. If your child learned about planetary movement from a textbook, he can experience it through another sense by moving balls of different sizes around a beach ball “sun” or circling around a chair while simultaneously rotating his body round and round.

Take The Stress Out Of Test-Taking

The best test-taking strategy for parents is to help children approach tests with positive expectations, learn from their mistakes, and avoid the stress that interferes with successful memory retrieval. Here are some ideas that can help you get started to work on this important skill with your child:

Have your child visualize what will be covered on the test

Ask her to sketch or visualize what she thinks might be important to remember on the test. She will benefit from the additional visual, motor, and auditory memory circuits that she will be building through multisensory review.

Provide your child with test de-stressors

Teach your child about relaxing rituals and mindfulness strategies, like calm breathing and stress-busting visualizations that she can use immediately before or during tests when she feels stressed. Other test de-stressors can be as easy as a shared joke, shared family experience, or meaningful ritual. Start by trying a few options in low stress conditions and when one makes your child laugh or respond positively, help him recognize that joke or ritual as something he can try or remember before a test to open brain flow.

Source: Flickr Free Use Photos Group

Tell your children they’re more than their test results

One of the most valuable lessons you can offer children is that they are far greater than the sum of their test results and mistakes are opportunities to learn. Show your children that incorrect answers on homework, quizzes, or tests do not mean they are not smart. Many tests don’t allow children to show what they know, but put excessive emphasis on giving single rote memorized facts that don’t reflect real understanding. Let them see when you make mistakes and learn from them. Help your children realize the value of learning from mistakes early on, so their mistakes guide future successes.


When you use these brain-friendly practices to guide your children’s meaningful learning, they will develop stronger memories for test success and more importantly. More importantly they will maintain their natural enthusiasm to understand and investigate the world around them. You will be their guide and partner as they become smarter in school and wiser in the life skills of critical thinking and creative problem solving.