Math anxiety or fear of math is a common obstacle to success in mathematics for many students. As a child, did you experience sweaty palms, nervousness, or headaches while solving math problems? If so, you were feeling math anxiety, a prevalent issue faced by many children. This feeling of worry, tension or apprehension may negatively impact your child’s performance and attitude towards math. However, as a parent, you can play a vital role in helping them overcome this hurdle and instill a positive outlook on the subject.
Understanding Math Anxiety
Before diving into ways to help your child, it’s essential to understand what math anxiety is and how it affects them. Math anxiety is a type of performance anxiety, which arises from concerns about their abilities in mathematical tasks. A study done in England found that 11 percent of children showed high math anxiety. In research, 50 percent of first- and second-graders say that math makes them nervous. Math anxiety is not merely a product of poor math skills. In other words, it’s a myth that only the students who struggle with math get math anxiety. According to a study published in 2018, more than three-quarters (77%) of children with high math anxiety are normal to high achievers on math tests. In many cases, math anxiety can result from negative experiences, societal pressures, or a lack of appropriate support.
Students with math anxiety may face difficulty in capturing information, retaining it, and solving problems, often resulting in lower test scores and class engagement. Students with math anxiety even feel pain in anticipation to doing a math-related task. Not only does it affect their academic performance, but it can also have long-term consequences. For example, if your child has math anxiety, he or she might try to avoid going into a field that requires high school math or involves math in its profession.
Children who develop math anxiety may continue to feel math anxiety when they become adults. According to Stanford University professor Jo Boaler, up to 50% of adults experience some form of math anxiety. As adults, they feel apprehension when they face a situation that involves math, such as calculating tips at a restaurant, measuring the weight of cooking ingredients, or preparing a household budget.
Where Does Math Anxiety Come From?
There isn’t just one cause of math anxiety. From research we know that math anxiety can develop early on, even from first or second grade. The question of why some children develop math anxiety while others don’t is complex. There are multiple potential causes for the development of math anxiety. Understanding the origins of math anxiety may provide us with insights on how to prevent or combat it.
- Early negative experiences with math: Math anxiety often has its roots in early childhood experiences such as struggling with math problems, receiving criticism from teachers or parents, or feeling embarrassed in front of classmates. Many kindergarten kids have a positive view of math. However, this number declines as children go to elementary school and advances in their grade levels. It suggests that negative experiences can create a sense of fear and failure, leading to math anxiety.
- Poor teaching methods: Ineffective or outdated teaching methods, such as memorization and rote learning without understanding the concepts, can lead to a lack of comprehension, which in turn can cause math anxiety. Students who don’t understand the material or rely on memorization to “get by” may feel overwhelmed and anxious about learning more complex topics.
- Gender stereotypes: Negative stereotypes about the math abilities of girls and women can contribute to math anxiety in female students. This anxiety can be intensified by a lack of role models, unequal treatment in the classroom, or additional societal pressures to conform to certain gender norms. When a girl is told that girls aren’t good at math, she might start to view math as an unsurmountable obstacle, giving her fear and anxiety when she has to learn more complex topics.
- Parents with math anxiety: Parents who express their own math anxiety or dislike for math can inadvertently pass these feelings on to their children. When parents say something like “math is hard” or “math doesn’t make sense” as they help their children with their homework, they can pass their math anxiety to their children.
- Teachers with math anxiety: Teachers with math anxiety may similarly pass their math anxiety to the students. Some elementary school teachers come from non-STEM background, so not all teachers feel at ease teaching math to their students. One study showed that when female teachers with high math anxiety taught their students, some girls embraced the gender stereotype that girls are not good at math. This resulted in the girls having lower math achievement compared to boys in the same class.
- Lack of understanding of the relevance of math: Students who do not see the connection between math and real-life applications may feel less motivated to learn the subject, which can contribute to math anxiety.
- Social cues: When children’s teachers or parents view math in negative terms, children can pick up these social cues and view math in negative light themselves. This is especially true if a child has weak math skills by the time he or she starts elementary school. Subtle negative behavior and words given by their teacher when they do a math question wrong may cause them to think that math is something they should be afraid of.
Recognize the Signs of Math Anxiety
It is crucial to identify math anxiety in your child as early as possible to increase the chances of successfully addressing and managing it. The earlier you help, the more likely it is that your child can overcome their anxiety and thrive in their academic pursuits. Keep an eye out for the following symptoms, which may indicate that your child is struggling with math anxiety:
1. Avoidance of math-related activities, homework or schoolwork: One of the most common signs of math anxiety is a strong reluctance to engage in any activities that involve math. Your child may procrastinate on math assignments, avoid doing their math homework, or simply refuse to participate in math-related activities at home or school.
2. Negative expressions, frustration, or panic when discussing math: Children with math anxiety often exhibit strong negative emotions when faced with math problems or discussions. They may become agitated, upset or panicked when asked to solve a math problem or talk about their math skills. You might hear from your child something like, “Why do we need to learn all this?”, “Math is stupid”, or “This is garbage”. This kind of emotional response can be a clear indication that the child is experiencing anxiety related to the subject.
3. Emphasizing their dislike or inability in the subject: Another common symptom of math anxiety is a tendency for the child to consistently express their dislike for the subject or their belief that they are just not good at math. They may repeatedly insist that they hate math, avoid talking about it whenever possible, or express feelings of defeat or inadequacy when faced with math problems. For example, you might hear something like “I can’t do math”, “Math isn’t for me”, “Math is only for smart people”, or “Math is too hard”.
4. Difficulty concentrating or applying knowledge in math situations: Children with math anxiety may struggle to focus and think clearly when they are required to work on math problems. Even if they have a solid understanding of the concepts being taught, they may have difficulty applying that knowledge in specific problem-solving situations. This could be due to the overwhelming anxiety they experience in math-related settings, which can block their ability to think critically and efficiently.
Helping Children with Math Anxiety – Preventing and Reducing It
Develop Growth Mindset
A growth mindset, coined by Carol Dweck, is the belief that one’s intelligence and abilities can be developed over time through experience and dedication. Research has demonstrated that individuals with a growth mindset are more likely to persevere through challenges and adapt effectively in the face of setbacks. According to growth mindset, being “smart” is not a fixed quality that children either have or don’t have. As children work hard, they can become “smart”.
How do you foster growth in your child? Try these strategies.
- Emphasize the importance of effort and persistence instead of innate ability. Avoid saying something like “You are smart”; instead say something like “You put in a lot of work. Good job!”
- Praise their problem-solving strategies and willingness to learn from mistakes. Tell them that learning process is more important than getting the right answer.
- Encourage them to view challenges as opportunities to grow, rather than threats to their self-worth. Some children who have a fixed mindset want to avoid challenges because they fear failure. For them, failing means their self-image of being “smart” is threatened. Tell your child that they can grow through facing challenges head-on, and regardless of success or failure, your child can grow and become better than before by embracing challenges.
- Model a growth mindset yourself by engaging in challenging tasks and discussing the process of learning from them. Share your success stories as well as failure stories and what you learned from your failure.
Rephrase Your Words
When your child gets her homework questions wrong or is stuck and don’t know how to do a question, what would you say to her? Would you say, “Don’t worry. Math is a hard subject and not everyone can do math”? According to cognitive scientists Stan Beilock and Daniel Willingham, that’s a wrong approach. It sends a message that your child isn’t good at math and that math is something that only people who are good at math can do. Instead, say something like, “I know math is hard, but if you try your best, you’ll become so good at it!” What this message does is to foster growth mindset in your child. While acknowledging that math is not easy, you are telling your child that everyone has the potential to become good at math.
It is not easy to choose the right words. When I was teaching my students, I struggled the find the right words to encourage my students who struggled with math. Saying “You are smart, so it’ll be okay” doesn’t foster growth mindset and doesn’t really motivate a student who believes he is not smart. At the same time, you wouldn’t want to put off your child by saying “You are not good enough to do math”. What’s important is to believe in the message of growth mindset and believe in your child that with hard work, he will eventually become better at math.
Improve Foundational Skills
As stated before, children with low skills in math when they enter elementary school are more at risk of developing math anxiety. This may be from their experience of failure in math in school or negative social cues given by their teacher. Naturally, development of skills in basic numeracy and geometry, such as counting, arithmetic, shapes, and patterning can help your child become more confident in math. Recognize the signs that your child is struggling in math. Then, help your child with these skills or find a tutor who specialize in helping students who struggle in math. Additionally, if you feel that your child has learning disability or other disabilities that hamper his or her academic progress, talk to your child’s teacher or doctor.
Let the Pros Handle Homework Help
Research indicates that parents with math anxiety can pass their anxiety to their children. Moreover, tutoring your own child is often a frustrating experience. If you let your emotion control you, it could exacerbate your child’s math anxiety. For example, if you yell at your child or put down your child, your child may associate math with negative emotions. It’s okay for a parent to not be an educator. Ask your child’s teacher for additional help or find a tutor for your child. In your child’s school, there may be free tutoring or homework help that is available for your child.
Try Free Writing
A research study by Park, Ramirez, and Beilock revealed that engaging in expressive writing, in which students openly pen down their thoughts and feelings related to math and exams, can help bridge the performance gap between students with high math anxiety and those with lower anxiety levels. Encouraging your child to freely write about their emotions and ideas regarding a particular subject allows them to explore and articulate their feelings, leading to improved self-reflection and better understanding of their own feeling. Ask your child to do free writing and tell them that it’s not an evaluation or homework, and that no one will look at or judge the content of their writing.
Give Your Child Success Experience
Math anxiety can be partly attributed to negative experiences with the subject, such as failing a test or struggling with certain problems. To alleviate this anxiety, you can provide your child with successful math experiences. In my previous learning center, I would focus on a specific area that the student was having difficulty with. For instance, if the student was struggling with solving equations, we would delve into the concepts behind it, use physical manipulatives to demonstrate the process, and practice solving equations on paper. With sufficient practice, the student would eventually become proficient in solving equations. This positive experience would serve as evidence that, with dedication and effort, they can indeed succeed in math.
Overcoming math anxiety is not an overnight process. It requires patience, persistence, and understanding from both parents and children. Be prepared for setbacks and celebrate small victories along the journey. By being consistent in your support and encouragement, you can help your child develop a positive relationship with math that will secure their success in the long run. At the same time, if you believe you don’t have the expertise or confidence in helping your child alleviate math anxiety, talk to your child’s teacher for help. There is no shame in asking for help.
Richard Zhang, M.Ed., is an educator and a software developer with a Masters degree in education from University of Toronto and an immense passion for education and learning. Until the pandemic, Richard owned an award-winning learning centre in Toronto. For 15 years, he has taught and mentored hundreds of elementary, middle school, and high school students succeed in academics. He is also an app developer specializing in web and mobile application in educational and business sectors.