How to Manage Test Anxiety and Academic Overwhelm

Try these simple solutions to help combat test anxiety and academic overwhelm so many teens are experiencing. The key is using food and play.

As you know by now, I wear many hats. One of those is of a teacher. I've been teaching secondary school for about 15 years now, and not surprisingly, I hold endorsements in many different areas. While I've spent move of my time in Health & PE, and think some of my most rewarding experience has been working with alternative learners, in both a specialized school and also within my classrooms.

I was drawn into education as a career for two reasons. 

First, it was a nice complement to my work as a certified athletic trainer and my desire to work with teens. Second, I wanted to help teens have a better school experience than I did. 

I was raised in a family that held very high academic expectations. And while I was bright, I struggled when it came to educational performance. What I know now is that I have ADHD, and in reflection, all of my frustrations with school and then the fallout that those caused in my family (namely not meeting the academic expectations and interests) are direct links to the unidentified gaps in how I processed information. 

At some point in my 20s, I learned that there were schools that supported teens who "didn't fit the traditional educational model" and I was intrigued. I'll admit that I was jealous that I didn't have those options, and I wanted to be able to support students whose brains also learned differently than others. Like mine did.

I wanted to teach in a way that I would have loved to be taught.

Fast forward 15 years and the combination of my love of learning and experience in the classroom has taught me a few things. The biggest being that we have populations of teens who are stressed out and overwhelmed when it comes to academic performance. The first time I heard about a Freshman in high school taking an AP course, I was floored. When I was in school, AP courses were reserved for Seniors, and top of the class at that. Now, I feel like many teens are expected to enroll in an AP course of some kind before graduating high school. 

I've written about this before but the average high school student is juggling many of the following pressures:

  • High academic performance, including AP coursework
  • Pressure to be accepted into college, and usually one with challenging entrance requirements
  • Multiple passes on the SAT, requiring tutoring and extra study time
  • Co-enrollment in high school classes and community college courses (again, to bulk up college applications)
  • Maintaining the first-team status in athletics
  • Compiling footage for sports scholarships. Travel to events to be seen by prospective colleges
  • Holding an afterschool job, either for application bulk or to support the family
  • Helping to shuffle younger siblings around to their extracurricular activities
  • Managing social connections - shuffling through social media drama, connecting with friends outside of school, etc.

It's no wonder that we're seeing an increase in the cases of anxiety and depression among our teens, and why so many are struggling to feel seen and heard for who they truly area.

Addressing Anxiety with Food

Trudy Scott, author of The Anti-Anxiety Food Solution, posted a great question on her Facebook page from a parent the other day, which led me to write this blog:

 "I know this is a generic question but I'm coming across so many anxious children at school. Aside from changing their diet what can I suggest to parents to try in a form of a supplement? Also when they write tests it produces incorrect scores because of the extra fear of failure. Do you have a suggestion of what to take before a test. I often let them chew gum but was wondering if you had any other suggestions."

I started following Trudy and her work because of the amazing recommendations that she provides for dealing with anxiety using nutrition. I found her shortly before I was diagnosed with ADHD and was struggling with anxiety and depression myself. These two issues often fall hand-in-hand with neurodiverse disorders, such as ADHD, Autism, Asperger's, and the like.

Trudy recommended some great options for dealing with anxiety using nutritional psychiatry as a foundation. For our teens, I truly believe this is one piece of the puzzle to dealing with their ever-increasing anxiety and depression, especially because we know that their food choices are often subpar. 

We can start by making sure they are getting whole-food meals at both breakfast and dinner, focusing on ingesting vegetables/plants and protein at both of these. Depending on their activity levels (if you are raising athletes) we may also need to adjust their starch intake to support both their athletic and academic performance. And a note on starch. The teens are not a time to go keto or low/no carb unless specifically directed by a physician, regardless of the benefits parents may be getting from this nutritional approach. Carbs are the fuel of choice for the brain, and while we should look at reducing added sugars and processed carbs, the adolescent brain still needs starch from whole grains and vegetables to function properly. Also, eating a well-balanced meal, based on whole foods, supports gut health and increases the bioavailability of the macro and micronutrients the nervous system needs to regulate itself, which includes managing anxiety and depression.

Outside of a whole-foods approach to nutrition, Trudy also recommends the following supplements and amino acids:

  • No sugar
  • No caffeine
  • No gluten
  • B vitamins
  • GABA
  • Tryptophan
  • Theanine

But, in addition to the nutritional intervention, I do believe that we are missing a very simple piece of the puzzle - movement in the form of play.

Addressing Anxiety through Movement & Play

Over the years we've shifted our emphasis on childhood development to what's happening in the classroom instead of what's going on outside of it, when in fact, the two go hand-in-hand. In my Masters' thesis, I looked at the relationship between extracurricular activity participation and academic performance and found that there is a positive correlation. Adolescents who engage in aby form of organized, adult-led extracurriculars usually perform better academically and also have more accomplishments in professional life after school. 

My research brought up many of the socio-emotional benefits of these kinds of activities, but as I've continued to explore the research over the past 20 years since I wrote my thesis, physical movement and play are showing up more and more. 

One of my favorite books on the subject is "Spark" by John J. Ratey, MD. In his book, he brings up how engaging in high-intensity movement, especially before school, a test, or a tough assignment actually helps to increase focus and results in better academic performance. The reason behind this is that this type of exercise actually mimics the effects of serotonin in the brain. 

We all can't do a quick HIIT workout before class, but I played around with this idea in my classes this year and pulled from some experiential-based learning exercises as pre-focus games. Simply having the students try to catch coins from their elbow to their hand, flip a piece of paper with their feet while standing on it, or playing yoga red-light, green-light, was enough to dispel some tension and prime the brain for the day's lesson. Both Stuart Brown of The National Institute for Play and Angela Hanscom, Founder of Timbernook have also documented the benefits of movement on neurological function and development in their books, and advocate for more play. 

Not only does play help to change the brain chemistry to enhance learning, but it also builds a sense of community within the classroom and lets our teens know that they are not in the struggle alone. This is another key piece of breaking the overwhelm cycle in teens, especially right now when so many are disconnected from a core circle of support due to COVID and remote learning.

As a teacher and a purveyor of play, I'm ecstatic to see a shift of educators focusing more on socio-emotional learning in the classroom, but at the same time I feel it's only skimming the surface. We need to do more than simply showing a video to our students to teach them about SEL skills, and really model them for our teens as both teachers and parents. In addition, we need to make sure we're bringing in both nutrition and play-based movement as pieces of the SEL toolkit, and to support our mental health for academic performance and overall wellbeing.


And back to our neurodivergent (ND) students. I personally love to learn through application.

One of my favorite classes in high school was Physics. It was also my worst class and lowest-performing class. I loved it because I could grasp the concept. My teacher made the class fun through demonstrations and labs that I could actually relate to - throwing boomerangs, propelling a water bottle through the air, etc. I could see and apply the concepts to my life. What I couldn't do it write them out in equations and solve them, which is what the grade was based on. 

In my own teaching, I try to bring in as much experiential and project-based learning as possible. Also, different entry points to an assignment, when students can choose how to best show their understanding of the topic. It's amazing to what a student who struggles with written assignments suddenly shine when allowed to show his understanding through song lyrics instead. Or, talk with a student to discover how a topic in science actually relates to a career goal and the lightbulb turns on. These simple adjustments to learning are just another way to activate play in the classroom.

But, back to the main focus, with our ND students, why not bring in some pre-test games, trivia, silliness, meditation, or breathwork to help prime their brains naturally and let them release some of that tension before getting serious. Not only does this benefit everyone, but it also provides a covert way for ND students to access their academic needs without feeling in the spotlight. As much as we want to be seen, it's to be recognized for uniqueness in what we contribute positively and not what might make us different in that "odd" way.

Imagine another way...

To wrap this all up, imaging this for me. 

You're back in high school and getting ready for a major test. You've studied, but still nervous because of some questions and uncertainties that remain. 

You walk into your classroom. Your teacher has a bowl of Cuties at the entrance and invites you to grab a couple and take a seat. You peel and eat them as you wait for everyone else to come in. 

Your teacher gives you a few five minutes to eat and review your notes. Then she pulls the trash can into the center of the room and tells everyone to try to make a basket with their trash. "Get up and move around the room", she says, "Find a good spot." If you miss, you have to run up, grab your trash and try again. This continues for about 5 minutes. You're welcome to try to make baskets with paper or other trash if you want to keep going. 

Isn't this a better scenario for a test besides coming in with bottled-up tension, sitting quietly waiting to start and get it over with?

All of that anxiety in the pit of your stomach like a coil - so much pressure as you start the test. In this new version, you have nourished the brain, decompressed that anxiety spring, had fun with your classmates, downregulated your vagus nerve through breathwork, and primed your brain for this test.

Some may argue that time was wasted at the beginning of the class because of the games, but I would argue that the students will be fine as they are now better able to access the answer instead of sitting searching for them.

Wrapping it up.

Test anxiety and pressure surrounding academic performance have been around for years, but that doesn't mean that we need to accept it as something students just have to deal with. Both parents and educators can address these concerns - both through shifts in nutrition and also changes to the classroom community. 

When we invite our teens to play - with their bodies and with their food - eventually, they will, but we just have to continue extending that invitation. We have to show them that there is a different way to approach their struggles that will benefit them in the end, even though we know we'll get push back. 

That's what parents and mentors like teachers are for. To invite, to model, to support, and to show that we have the experience to share. 

What are your favorite ways to decrease the anxiety and overwhelm in teens? It can be something that you used when you were young or something that your own teens use. Or, if you are a teen reading this, I'd love to hear what you're doing right now.

Categories: mental health, teens, play, wellness, education

Do you want to talk more about something in this post, or have questions about how to help your teen return to play? 

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