What Is Test Anxiety in Children? - Definition, Research & Causes

Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

It is estimated that between 20% and 45% of children in the United States experience test anxiety. Learn about the causes of test anxiety, recent research, and more.


Imagine that you are a concerned parent of a child who is not performing well in school. You make sure that your child does not miss any school. You review your child's homework every night and find that it is done correctly. You review concepts with your child and find that he understands the material quite well. You help your child study for his upcoming exams.

Though you feel like your child has the necessary knowledge to pass his exams, he comes home a week later and tells you that he failed each and every test. You are baffled, so you set up a meeting with his teachers. They tell you that your son does well on everyday class work and homework, but he freezes up, sweats, and zones out during tests. He has trouble responding to even the simplest questions on a test. On occasion, he will even run to the bathroom and vomit.

What your son's teachers are describing is test anxiety, which is a form of performance anxiety where a person experiences high levels of distress or uneasiness before, during, or after an examination. Test anxiety interferes with the ability to do the best in testing situations. A child with test anxiety may experience a lack of concentration, feelings of helplessness, or shortness of breath. Test anxiety decreases school performance.

What Causes Text Anxiety in Children?

We know that all forms of anxiety are a response to experiencing stress. When we are under stress, we release adrenaline, which is the same hormone that produces our 'fight or flight' reaction. This causes the physical symptoms that are associated with test anxiety, including sweating, rapid breathing, and lightheadedness.

Causes of test anxiety include:

  • Previous poor test performance
  • Poor study and test-taking skills
  • Low self-esteem
  • Fear of failure
  • Not being prepared for the test
  • Test-taking environments that are distracting
  • School or classroom environments that are highly competitive
  • High expectations and pressures to perform well from family
  • Negative attributions
  • Tests that are poorly designed
  • Time constraints
  • Stereotype threat, which is when a person feels anxiety in situations where they could potentially confirm a negative stereotype about their group as a self-characteristic

In addition, having a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder (i.e. panic disorder), attention disorder (i.e. attention deficit disorder), or obsessive compulsive behaviors increase the likelihood that a person will develop test anxiety.

Relevant Research

There have been several research studies related to test anxiety in children. Most of the research has been related to the impact of test anxiety on standardized testing and academic performance. Research findings include:

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