Preparing for standardized tests is a stressful experience for many students. And, as the recent college application scandal highlights, parents can also experience a tremendous amount of stress and investment in the process.
How parents conduct themselves during this time sets the tone for their children’s experience, and the power of a grounded, supportive parent should not be underestimated.
As an SAT tutor who specializes in helping students achieve elite scores, I see firsthand how my students with low levels of anxiety and high levels of self-confidence have the easiest time raising their scores. Students with high anxiety and low self-confidence, by contrast, are often stunted by the weight of the pressure they feel.
Manage Your Own Stress
If your child is struggling with test anxiety and you are also feeling stressed by their performance, it is best for them if you can take steps to decrease your stress. Anxiety can have a significant impact on a student’s ability to process information, make decisions, and learn. It is important that an anxious student has a calm, supportive environment, rather than one that exacerbates her situation.
Motivate with Hope not Fear
While fear is a strong motivator for a lot of people, I’ve found that hope is better for test prep. Many parents don’t realize that they are motivating through fear, but it’s easy to do if you yourself are feeling afraid.
Instead of taking the attitude of “If you get a bad score, you won’t get into any good colleges,” I recommend reframing your student’s process as “If you get a great score, you will have more opportunities and choices.”
As a tutor, the reason for parents to inspire with hope is obvious: fear makes students anxious, and when they’re really anxious, they don’t perform as well. Hope and desire, on the other hand, can inspire students to work just as hard while also imbuing them with sense of confidence.
Anxiety is a delicate thing- a small amount can help students focus but too much can impair them.
Set Skill Goals, Not Score Goals
Fixating on your student’s score is not helpful. I cannot emphasize this enough. Scores naturally fluctuate with focus, time of day, and fatigue. I recommend that you do not go on the emotional roller coaster of following your student’s every practice test score. It is exhausting and pointless.
Instead, reframe progress in terms of skill goals. For example, each week your child should set specific goals for the skills, habits, or concepts they plan to work on that week. It could be anything from learning the comma rules to working on pacing for reading the passages. When you want to check in to see how it’s going with your child, ask about how the skills are coming along. If your child has made progress with a skill, they have improved at the test.
Measuring progress based on skill goals is more concrete than measuring progress based on scores. Also, it reinforces for your student that the path to a better score is in working on the specific things they’re struggling with.
In general, I think of the parent’s role as creating an environment that feeds success. They can do this by providing the “nutrients” their child needs to thrive in the application process. I have never met a student who experienced their parent’s stress as helpful, so stress would be an example of something that is non-nutritive. What each child needs may vary, but managing your stress, motivating with hope instead of fear, and setting skill goals all provide a great foundation from which you can help your child achieve the most that she can.