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Q: My 12-year-old son has reading/comprehension disabilities. He is getting up to his grade level with that. This year he is in the sixth grade and is having a terrible time passing tests. We study with him and he knows the material, but when it comes time to take the test he fails it. He goes to Sylvan Learning Center for his reading/comprehension, and they have started implementing test-taking skills.

We have learned that he doesn't have faith in his test-taking ability. He doesn't have faith in his memory or the knowledge he has. He is intimidated by "tests" this year. My question is whether the self-confidence tape will help. Should he play this tape before going to bed, listen to it while sleeping? Is it something he will have to replay over and over to keep his self-confidence up? Once he starts passing tests and gets his confidence up, will he still need to listen to the tape? Thank you for your time and your reply. I am anxious to hear from you so my son can feel good about his school work.

A: First of all, let me say that your son is lucky to have you in his corner. You're doing all the right things--getting him help, working with him at home on his studying, and empathizing with his situation.

I'm responding, not just as a therapist but as one who has had this experience myself as a parent. I really encourage you to stay with it, not to get discouraged, and to remember that most of the time kids really do either compensate or outgrow a lot of this.

I'd also like to advise you that while you need to keep being sensitive to him and help him keep his self-esteem intact, he needs you to keep having expectations of him. Don't treat him as if he were made of glass. Much as you'd like to, you can't take this away from him--it's not yours to take away--but you can help him cope with it, manage it, overcome it, and be stronger for it. The way he learns to cope with this could be one of the most powerful character- and confidence-shaping lessons of his young life--and much more important to his future than any test. So don't overdo for him, and keep the long haul in mind. This is not about getting A's or B's this week or even this year.

Will the self-confidence tape help? Probably so. It's made for situations like this (also auditions, interviews, first dates, sports competitions, presentations, speeches, dinner parties, and any kind of performance-on-demand situation). He certainly couldn't be at a better age for responding well to guided imagery than the age of 12! All 12-year-olds are by definition little space cadets, unless their hormones haven't kicked in yet.

I'd recommend he listen to it with his hands folded over his belly or some other convenient, easy, physical gesture like that (something he'll be able to do sitting in a chair, getting ready to take a test). For the first week or two, he should only listen to it under relaxed circumstances--not just before his homework or anything like that. Before or during sleep is fine--an excellent time, in fact--especially with the slowed-down theta and delta brain waves that these times afford him.

This in and of itself should have a steady, subtle, incrementally positive effect. You may also want to encourage him to imagine other kinds of support around him--an angel, superhero-protector, guardian, pet, a loving grandfather, or some other kind of companion who thinks the world of him and wants to look out for him (a lot of dyslexic kids have fabulous imaginations, so statistically he's actually at an advantage here).

After two or three weeks of relaxing with the imagery, you may want to encourage him to take practice exams at home, replicating real test situations for maybe just five or 10 minutes. Just before the practice test, have him position his hands the way he did listening to the tape. Tell him to breathe deeply a couple of times and have him recall some favorite images from the tape, in all their sensory detail, and perhaps visualize the protector beside him, gently sending out encouraging vibes, support, and help with focusing on the task at hand. Keep doing this until it gets old and boring to him, and his anxiety is dissipated in the ho-humness of it all.

The next step might be to have him do this same procedure at Sylvan with the practice tests they give there, then finally with the real thing. Let him know that the important thing here isn't the test but his building up his skills for performing under pressure. It's a skill he can learn that will stand him in good stead for a lifetime.

And yes, once he starts doing better, the success will take on a life of its own. Little successes breed their own kind of confidence, and he will need the imagery less and less--except for times that get his anxiety aroused again, in which case, he goes back to his cassette player and takes a booster shot. No big deal.

I hope this helps. Good luck!

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