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V.8 #2 Counseling/School Psychology - Testing Anxiety

Brought to you by Learning Disabilities Worldwide (LDW®) through the generosity of Saint Joseph's University. It is quite common that children with learning disabilities experience test anxiety that has an adverse effect on their academic performance. What is less known is that oftentimes test anxiety stems from a social anxiety disorder in which the individualfears negative evaluations from others due to performing poorly on exams that appraise their academic functioning (Weiss, 2014).

Test Anxiety

Test anxiety is conceived as a fearful reaction of poor performance on exams and other types of assessments. Oftentimes children and adolescents are fearful not only due to the results of the exams but worry prior to taking the examinations, causing difficulties in concentration and memory. It is quite common for these same children to experience depressed mood along with low self-esteem in conjunction with test anxiety (Weiss, 2014).

Although as many as 38% of Caucasian and 52% of African American children and adolescents report anxiety while taking tests, only 11% report clinically significant levels that constitute test anxiety. Moreover, although girls are more likely to be identified and classified with test anxiety, this situation may be mediated by girls’ willingness to report their anxiety more than boys. In addition, the average age of onset of test anxiety is 14.7 years of age (Weiss, 2014).

Social Anxiety Disorder

Although there is no diagnostic category in the DSM-5 for test anxiety, the overwhelming evidence is that test anxiety is a type of social anxiety disorder in which individuals fear a negative evaluation of their test performance by others. Prior to the exam, students often report high levels of anxiety due to perceived future criticism of their performance by teachers and parents and to some extent, even from peers. Much of this stems from negative automatic thoughts that students feel they have no control over; thoughts that tell them they will receive catastrophic results on the exam and the subsequent concerns over these implications. Needless to say, these cognitions become self-fulfilling by exacerbating the student’s anxiety, which consequently impedes their concentration and performance (Weiss, 2014).

CBT and Social Anxiety Disorder

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is considered the most effective treatment for social anxiety disorder. CBT is based on the underpinnings that thoughts, feelings, and actions are interrelated so that if one’s thinking is changed, it has repercussions on the person’s feelings and actions. Moreover, just as thoughts may change feelings and behaviors, changing a person’s behavior can also alter the person’s feelings and thoughts. Utilizing a CBT approach, student’s are taught to recognize their anxious feelings and use cognitive and behavioral strategies to reduce the anxiety.

Steps to Reduce Test Anxiety

There are specific programs for children and teens such as Phillip Kendall’s Coping Cat, developed by clinical psychologists, which can be administered by mental health professionals in the school system, or in a variety of other settings. Coping Cat utilizes CBT in a packaged program to address anxiety disorders, particularly general and social anxiety disorders. The Coping Cat program is divided into two different phases that consist of educational (explaining about the interrelationship between thoughts, feelings, and actions) and practice exercises for children and adolescents; exercises that teach students how to cope with their anxiety. Below are some of the main points that a trained mental health professional would address in reducing symptoms of anxiety using the Coping Cat program (Weiss, 2014).

  • Children and adolescents first need to identify feelings and physiological sensations (e.g., butterflies in the stomach) that are associated with anxiety. They are then taught to use muscle relaxation to reduce the level of anxiety.

  • Next, students are taught to monitor their negative thoughts in order to recognize how these negative cognitions contribute to their anxiety. They ask themselves, “Am I expecting a bad outcome?” Workbook scenarios, games, and role-playing exercises are implemented to reinforce the strategies taught to give ample opportunities for them to practice monitoring negative thoughts.

  • Within the sessions, the therapist addresses the abundance of negative self-statements induced by the anxious individual. The goal is not to teach the student to see the world through “rose-colored glasses,” but to train the student to envision more realistic outcomes, rather than catastrophic interpretations.

  • In future sessions, problem-solving training is provided to help students to perceive a social situation more realistically. Through the use of brainstorming to create multiple solutions to social problems, students can consider the strengths and weaknesses of each solution, and then select the most beneficial course of action.

  • Finally students are taught to engage in self-reinforcement by rewarding themselves when facing a feared situation. Because anxious individuals often have unrealistic expectations of events it is necessary for them to attempt a more realistic outcome and to take pride in their attempt at facing the anxiety-provoking situation.

Implications for the classroom

It is incumbent upon teachers to recognize and scaffold students with learning difficulties who have test anxiety by actively referring them for help to a trained mental health professional. Use of the Coping Cat program can provide the necessary intervention in reducing a very debilitating childhood and adolescent problem that not only has academic implications but also social ones. Reference

Weiss, R. (2014). Abnormal child and adolescent psychology. Washington, D. C.: Sage Publications. Michael David Benhar, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Social Sciences Department at Suffolk County Community College. Dr. Michael David Benhar teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Developmental Psychology, Exceptional Child, Classroom Management, and Assessment. He has co-authored a chapter on students with disabilities. In addition, he has worked as a school psychologist in a preschool for children with special needs. Contact Dr. Michael Benhar at benharm@sunysuffolk.edu.

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