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Strategies to Help Students with Intellectual Disabilities Overcome Test Anxiety

written by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • edited by: Sarah Malburg • updated: 8/2/2012

Test anxiety can be difficult for students to deal with, even more so for students with intellectual disabilities. Learn about test anxiety in students with intellectual disabilities and different techniques that can help them overcome the anxiety.

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    Intellectual disabilities, also called mental retardation, affects between 1 and 3 percent of the population, according to MedlinePlus. Children with an intellectual disability can have problems learning and experience difficulties in school. Some children may develop test anxiety, a type of performance anxiety, which may also cause problems in the classroom.

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    Test Anxiety in Students with Intellectual Disabilities

    The University of Texas at Austin explains that test anxiety consists of three parts: physical, emotional and cognitive. The physical part of test anxiety involves nausea, dry mouth, rapid heart beat and trembling hands. With the emotional part of test anxiety, students feel panicky. Issues with memory and attention make up the cognitive aspect of test anxiety. Sherva Elizabeth Cooray and Alina Bakala, authors of, Anxiety disorders in people with learning disabilities, point out that certain factors, such as poor social support and coping skills, can increase the risk of anxiety in people with learning disabilities, including intellectual disabilities. Studies have shown that cognitive problems, such as issues with attention and memory, can predict test anxiety and that students with learning disabilities have higher levels of test anxiety than students who do not, according to Dubi Lufi, Susan Okasha and Arie Cohen, authors of Test anxiety and its effect on the personality of students with learning disabilities.

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    Strategies for Test Anxiety

    How, then, can parents and teachers help reduce test anxiety in students with intellectual disabilities? One option is cognitive behavioral therapy; a type of psychotherapy. The National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists defines cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, as a therapy that “is based on the idea that our thoughts cause our feeling and behaviors, not external things, like people, situations, and events."

    Lufi, Okasha and Cohen note that cognitive behavioral therapy for test anxiety can involve several interventions, including guided imagery and progressive muscle relaxation. With progressive muscle relaxation, the therapist has the student sit comfortably and alternate between tensing and relaxing muscles. Shippensburg University notes that progressive muscle relaxation is done by groups of muscles, such as hands, biceps and triceps, shoulders, and neck. Using guided imagery, the therapist helps the student visualize sounds, images and smells that help them to relax. Another option is to incorporate relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing. Cooray and Bakala explain that relaxation techniques can help people who have mild to severe learning disabilities.

    The cognitive behavioral therapist may also help train students in test-taking skills. When choosing a therapist to help reduce test anxiety in students with intellectual disabilities, look for one who has past experience working with patients who have intellectual disabilities.

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    • The University of Texas at Dallas: Self-Help: Test Anxiety


    • Cooray, S.E. and Bakala, A. (2005). Anxiety disorders in people with learning disabilities. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment. 11, 355-361


    • MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia: Mental Retardation


    • Lufi, D., Okasha, S., and Cohen, A. (2004). Test anxiety and its effect on the personality of students with learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly. 27(3), 176-184


    • National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists: What is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy?


    • Shippensburg University: Progressive Muscle Relaxation