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An intervention for helping elementary students reduce test anxiety. (Perspective From The Field).

It is an underlying assumption in schools that examinations will be given. In fact, within the broad field of education, the use of standardized testing has become ubiquitous (Council of Chief State School Officers, 2000). As salient as examinations are in the life of students, test anxiety among elementary students seems to have been ignored. Yet, demands on students to do well on tests are a reality. As demands and pressures are placed on students to achieve higher test scores, the need for school counselors to implement interventions to help reduce anxiety increases. The purpose of this article is to describe an intervention designed to reduce elementary students' test anxiety.

Researchers in the field such as Hancock (2001), Hedl (1972), Sarason (1980), Spielberger and Vagg (1995), and Trent and Maxwell (1980) have characterized test anxiety as a relatively stable personality trait in which threatening situations generate debilitating psychological, physiological, and behavioral responses. Not only can test anxiety cause children to rush through testing in order to escape the unpleasant physical experiences (Rubenzer, 1988), but also it may actually create an "invisible disability" of achievement stress that can extend throughout a student's academic career (Hill & Wigfield, 1984). The "flight or fight" response experienced as a part of test anxiety can lead to major changes in attitude and effort that include withdrawal, outbursts, overactive behaviors, fatigue, avoidance of school, and other depressive symptoms (Rubenzer, 1988).



Previous research (Gonzales, 1995; Kennedy & Doepke, 1999; Proeger & Myrick, 1980) provides data to support the effectiveness of relaxation training for secondary and college-age students. These relaxation techniques have rarely been implemented in an elementary group setting (Strumpf & Fodor, 1993).

There is evidence to suggest that incorporating art and music techniques with stress-reducing strategies provides additional support and an element of fun (Hobson, 1996; Thomas, 1987). Developmentally, art is a natural extension for elementary students, and the research of Thomas (1987) indicated that adolescents often use music as one of their main stress-management strategies. Further, Russell (1992) found that familiar-sedative music paired with imagery proved to be the most successful strategy for reducing state anxiety among college students.

The strategies presented in this article were implemented in both group and classroom guidance settings. Stress-management techniques combined with music, art, and movement made the sessions fun and exciting for the students.

The Setting

The setting for this intervention was an elementary school consisting of grades kindergarten through fifth grade. As preparation for statewide testing in early spring, students are administered benchmark tests three times during the fall and winter. Following the benchmark testing, some teachers reported that several of their students were demonstrating signs of anxiety such as avoidance, crying, illness, and outbursts of anger. Thus, as part of the school's remediation and support for the students, the school counselor devised an intervention designed to address the increasing anxiety and decreasing test scores of the students.


Following the benchmark tests in October, the school counselor identified 16 students who had not met the 70% passing rate or who had exhibited or reported extreme feelings of anxiety and stress (six in third grade, five in fourth grade, and five in fifth grade). Fifty percent of these students had failed the Reading portion of the test while 67% of the students failed the Mathematics section. Some students were also recommended for intervention strategies due to high anxiety reactions. When informally interviewed by the school counselor, all 16 students reported feelings of frustration and anxiety with regard to the testing, even to the point of physical illness and vomiting.

Because of time constraints and in order to avoid increasing the academic pressures the students felt, the school counselor implemented relaxation techniques in a format that would not remove students from class for long periods of time. Initially, all 16 of the identified students from the three grade levels participated in group sessions in the counselor's office. Further interventions were implemented in the students' classrooms. Additionally, the students' parents were given information and materials to use at home.

During the first group session, the 16 students were administered a test anxiety exposure hierarchy based on the work by Kennedy and Doepke (1999). This hierarchy consists of 13 items. (See Appendix.) The students were asked to respond to each item by individually recording the level of his or her anxiety on a scale of 0 (representing no anxiety) to 10 (representing debilitating anxiety). According to the mean (8.4) of self-report levels, the highest anxiety event was: "You start the test and read the first question. You do not know the answer immediately." During subsequent group sessions, the discussion of the students' reactions to the items served as a focal point for the group relaxation techniques.

In the second session, the 16 students were taught to "Stop, Drop, and Roll." In an effort to facilitate integration, this relaxation technique utilized the well-known fire safety precautions that many children are taught in schools. Specifically, the students were instructed that when they physically felt the "fire" of anxiety and stress, they should "stop" (actually put down their pencils and place their hands on the table while concentrating on the coolness of the surface). Then they were to "drop" their heads forward, and "roll" them around gently while taking three deep breaths. The group members practiced the relaxation technique as classical music was played.

During the third group session, the 16 students used the relaxation technique during imagined exposure to the hierarchy items. As the counselor read each item, the group members called "Fire!" when they started to feel anxiety, and the group would practice the "Stop, Drop, and Roll" techniques. The students then used art materials to create self-portraits depicting themselves as calm and successful during the test. These drawings were sent home with the students so that their parents could assist them with their relaxation.

The next three sessions were implemented as part of a classroom guidance unit on test-taking skills. The students who had participated in the group sessions taught their classmates the "Stop, Drop, and Roll" techniques (monitored and assisted by the school counselor). Classroom visits by the counselor and frequent reports from teachers and parents assisted in monitoring the ongoing progress of the students. During the final days before the test administration, a school-wide assembly was held to motivate all students to practice the "Stop, Drop, and Roll" technique to techno dance music.


Following the administration of the statewide test, the 16 students in the initial group sessions reported that they felt better and were more relaxed during the administration of the test. Ultimately, 75% of the students who participated in the group passed the Reading portion of the test and 94% passed the Mathematics portion. Of the 16 group members, only two failed both the Reading and Math portions. The other 14 group members successfully passed at least one part of the test. Additionally, all 16 of the group members reported less stress and worry about future testing situations. Parents and teachers also observed and reported a reduction in stress-reaction behaviors. Although it cannot be concluded that the test anxiety interventions were completely responsible for the success of the group members, the evaluation from the students and their teachers certainly suggests that it was an important component.


There is no foreseeable end to high-stakes testing for students. In an environment where test scores have been and will continue to be utilized to evaluate students and schools, school counselors must take the responsibility to assist all members of the school community (students, staff, and parents) with the increasing pressures and stress associated with testing.

Through the utilization of a multisystemic format, a veritable safety net was built around the 16 students. Teachers, parents, and other students joined the school counselor in supporting students through the anxiety-provoking testing situations. As a by-product of the intervention, there was an increased sense of school community. By expanding the utilization of the techniques into the classroom, the group members were not isolated and stigmatized. Instead, they were permitted to be instructors in the process for their class. In fact, many of the students in the class requested to join the groups, because it appeared that they had a tremendous amount of fun.

In summary, we believe this intervention is easy to teach and learn, easy to understand, and is effective in reducing test anxiety and increasing school success, particularly for elementary students. Additionally, it is especially effective in highlighting the role of the school counselor, as it provides a means for the counselor to facilitate an effective counseling alliance with students, teachers, and parents.


Test Anxiety Exposure Hierarchy

* You are preparing for the test that will be administered in one week.

* You are in class working on skills for the test. It is a week before the test.

* You are discussing the importance of the test. It is now Friday morning.

* It is Monday morning before the test. You are studying and planning your schedule for tomorrow.

* It is night before the test. You are eating breakfast. How are you feeling?

* It is Tuesday morning, and you are walking into your classroom.

* You are sitting in a classroom waiting for the test to begin, and they hand you your test.

* You start the test and read a few the first question. You do not know the answer immediately.

* You are taking the test and read a few more questions that are confusing.

* You realize that people are starting to finish the test, and you know that you need more time.

* You are taking the test, and it is time for lunch.

* You turn in the test.


Council of Chief State School Officers. (2000). Key state education policies on K-12 education: 2000. Retrieved January 15, 2002, from pdf

Gonzales, H. P. (1995). Systematic desensitization, study skills counseling, and anxiety coping training in the treatment of test anxiety. In C. D. Spielberger & P. R. Vagg (Eds.), Test anxiety: Theory, assessment, and treatment (pp. 117-132). Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis.

Hancock, D. R. (2001). Effect of test anxiety and evaluative threat on students' achievement and motivation. The Journal of Educational Research, 94, 284-290.

Hedl, J. J., Jr. (1972). Test anxiety: A state or trait concept? Summary. In Proceedings of the 80th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, 7 (pp. 503-504). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Hill, K.T., & Wigfield, A. (1984). Test anxiety: A major educational problem and what can be done about it. Elementary School Journal, 85, 105-126.

Hobson, S. M. (1996). Test anxiety: Rain or shine! Elementary School Guidance and Counseling, 30, 316-318.

Kennedy, D.V., & Doepke, K. J. (1999). Multicomponent treatment of a test anxious college student. Education and Treatment of Children, 22, 203-217.

Proeger, C., & Myrick, R. D. (1980). Teaching children to relax. Florida Educational Research and Development Council Inc. Research Bulletin, 14(3), 51.

Rubenzer, R. L. (1988). Stress management for the learning disabled. Reston, VA: ERIC Clearinghouse on Handicapped and Gifted Children.

Russell, L. A. (1992). Comparisons of cognitive, music, and imagery techniques on anxiety reduction with university students. Journal of College Student Development, 33, 516-523.

Sarason, I. G. (1980). Test anxiety: Theory, research, and applications. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Speilberger, C. D., & Vagg, P. R. (Eds.). (1995). Test anxiety: Theory, assessment, and treatment. Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis.

Strumpf, J. A., & Fodor, I. (1993). The treatment of test anxiety in elementary school-age children: Review and recommendations. Child and Family Behavior Therapy, 15(4), 19-42.

Thomas, E. (1987, August). Stress and schooling: A search for stress profiles of adolescent students. Paper presented at the International Council of Psychologists Annual Convention, New York. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 291 047)

Trent, J. T., & Maxwell, W. A. (1980). State and trait components of test anxiety and their implications for treatment. Psychological Reports, 47, 475-480.

James R. Cheek, Ed.D., is an assistant professor, Department of Human Services and Counseling, St. Johns's University, New York City. E-mail: Loretta J. Bradley, Ph.D., is a professor, Counselor Education Department, Texas Tech University, Lubbock. JoLynne Reynolds, Ph.D., is an assistant professor, Department of Education Administration and Psychology, Southwest Texas State University, San Marcos. Doris Coy, Ph.D., is a professor in Counselor Education, University of North Texas, Denton.
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Author:Coy, Doris
Publication:Professional School Counseling
Date:Dec 1, 2002
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