Does your child have math anxiety? Does the mere mention of math make a look of panic rush across their otherwise reasonably calm face, make their palms sweat, their heart race, and their mind go blank? If you are a parent who has some math fears yourself, you may think that math anxiety is an inevitable part of life, after all—math, yuck! But you are likely also thinking that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) are skills are increasingly important for career success, and your child likely thinks that too, so when we put two and two together, so to speak, take fear plus pressure plus time constraints (they call those timed tests “mad minutes” why?) and it’s not surprising that millions of kids suffer from math anxiety. You may think that there’s nothing to do but power through as your child is haunted each year with the math anxiety de jour, beginning with those relentless math facts flashcards in first grade all the way through the dreaded quadratic equations in high school, not to mention factorials(!)—what are they anyway, and why do they have an exclamation point after them? Are they messing with us(?). Fortunately math does not have to feel like a necessary evil, and in fact with some mindset adjustments, our kids can master and maybe even enjoy the essential set of skills that math offers them.
Because wait—why do we have math anxiety? Is it really the math that’s the problem, or is it the fears and beliefs kids have about it (and their beliefs about their ability to understand and succeed in math) that get in the way? Like any phobia—take dogs for example, the sweetest most harmless puppy can engender fear in a child’s mind not because that sweet puppy poses a real risk, but because of the nefarious ideas that get their first in their mind and actually block a child’s view of seeing the wagging tail, the irresistible puppy dog eyes. Blocking their ability to see that sweetness, fear has instead directed them to bolt in the other direction in what feels like a run for their life moment.
In the same way, just the mention of the word “math” or “equations” or looking at an array of numbers can trigger a surge of anxiety in some kids and block the abilities that they have or could develop to understand and improve their math performance— under calmer conditions. Overcoming math phobia begins by changing your child’s (and your own, too) mindset about numbers, calculations, fractions, and the whole lot of it. The goal is for kids to see math and themselves doing math in an accurate way: With time and effort and a good teacher, kids can progress with their math skills. Kids need to adopt the mindset that even though math may be hard at first, it can make sense and maybe even become easier with practice.
To be sure, targeting math phobia sometimes is about improving math skills, but that’s step two. Step one has to be about tackling all the unhelpful or distorted way kids react to math, perceive it, and how they assess and predict their ability to learn it. Because even kids who have decent (or even excellent) math skills, if they go in to a math test with excessive anxiety, fearing they will fail may see their worst fears may come true: They do blank out; they do underperform. There’s neuroscience to explain why this happens: Going into a math test stressed out and afraid actually blocks the working memory where their math facts are stored. The result: scrambling in the brain to find the information which is locked up by the child in fight or flight fear mode. This creates a vicious cycle of more fear next time because their fear came true: they blanked out.
Research has found that like with other fears, math anxiety doesn’t come from a true and realistic absence of skills, but from a mindset of negative beliefs about three things: (1) math: it’s too hard, (2) about ourselves: we are not good at math , and (3) about learning overall: the crowning belief of what Stanford psychologist, Dr. Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset: if we aren’t good at something right away, we can’t get better, if something is hard, we shouldn’t try because it won’t get easier; if we make mistakes, we aren’t smart; if we aren’t good at one area, we aren’t good at anything.
It is the belief that we can’t do math that interferes with our ability to learn and becomes a mantra or more like an anxiety message on auto-repeat and a self-fulfilling prophecy. If from the second we open a math book or step foot into a math classroom we are in a state of fear, then we are going to be in threat mode and the “learning” part of the brain will shut right down so that the “run for your life” part can kick in full gear and protect us. Protect us? This may sound strange, but we were built in a time—long, long ago—when our “run for your life” response was needed on a regular basis for our survival and critically pre-empted anything else we might be involved in. Because if there were a tiger, it wouldn’t be a time to stop and learn, it would be a time to run! Clearly running from math, though it may be tempting isn’t going to help! So even though our survival brain may respond to math like it would a tiger, and can’t distinguish between the two, we can teach our kids to talk back to their anxiety and let them know even though they are scared or confused, they need more time, not more adrenaline.
Math may be hard for some, and everyone even math geniuses have some parts of math that are hard, but no matter what or how much, math students need to intentionally override their first fearful reaction, so that it’s not the fight or flight part of the brain coming to class with them, but rather their quiet thinking brain to help them “do the math.”
So how do we help kids overcome math anxiety? Turns out there is a job for everyone.
What’s another significant factor in the math anxiety equation? Speed. Timed tests. No other subject area emphasizes speed as a sign of intelligence or competence. Kids know that they have to “get it” in math, and the kids who “get it” first are waving their hands in the air and usually getting the accolades. The kids who get it faster look smarter. And then to make math a speed sport more, we start giving timed tests in math (something we don’t do in reading or science, or history) from an early age, something which researchers say contributes to forming an early and lasting anxious reaction to math. So the question is—while we can help kids with the workings of their own mind in overcoming math anxiety, what can we do on the outside, changing our practices, to not undo that work—or more to the point, to stop inadvertently reinforcing a sense of math inadequacy?
Teachers please, whenever possible, free your students from speed over knowledge! If kids are anxious, timed tests only multiply the stress, they are already thinking about the clock too much, and really won’t be able to think. It’s an uphill battle to make changes in the status quo, but the science supports the negative impact of “timed tests” on performance. Whenever you can, give your students time to explore, experiment, make friends with the problems rather than mortal enemies.
Parents can help too, by keeping your math fears to yourself, as modeling fear or hopelessness has been shown to influence kids’ math mindset: Instead of saying, “I’m not good at math, or math is really hard,” say, “Math is not my strong suit, but when I work at it, I get better at it.”
Here are ten new ideas to help your child succeed in math this year:
- Math is a skill like anything else. Replace the statement: I’m not good at math, with a growth mindset statement: “This may be hard at first, if I work at it, I’ll get better at it.”
- Help kids expect to get stuck and destigmatize the stuck-ness Help kids expect to get stuck and get unstuck, and that this is the normal progression. Remember the learning curve, if you don’t understand something, you just don’t understand it yet. Help them edit in a “Not yet,” as in, “I just haven’t learned this “yet.” Aha moments are worth the wait! “It’s OK not to understand, that doesn’t mean I can’t or should give up, it means I need to keep trying or get help.” Sometimes a brief break or “walk away” can help shorten the interval between between stuck and unstuck.
- Avoidance is not your friend if we think something is unpleasant or we won’t be good at it, we avoid it and then we are under-prepared, don’t do well and confirm our belief that we can’t.
- Do a wider mindset overhaul Make sure kids aren’t making global, permanent statements like “I’m dumb,” or, “I’m not smart” if they are struggling or just working on math. Help them get specific and narrow down to the one problem they are working on now, and also re-set about the goal of their work isn’t to “prove” whether they’re smart or not, it’s about “improving” by their efforts.
- Neutralize negative language When kids say, “I hate math!” or “Math is the worst!” empathize with the feeling, but ask them to use their inner editor to say something more neutral like, “I prefer another subject, or it’s not my favorite,” or, “I don’t love this, and that’s OK,” because those phrases (as opposed to their first draft responses) are not going to get their guard up and put them in fight or flight. Neutral language will help them stay in learning mode.
- Give your inner coach a script Have kids choose the coaching voice they want in their head. Ask them to list the things worry is telling them about math, e.g., “You can’t do this, you’re going to fail!” then ask them to fact check and edit to come up with an inner “coach” who is really on their side: “You have studied well, you are a strong student, focus on the now, this is just one test, give it your all, but see what you know, and see what you need to learn.”
- Highlight math as the everyday skill it is Money, recipes, measuring items to rearrange your room, counting cans of cat food you need in a week, all these are grist for the math mill. Make it everyday math, because it is.
- Model getting help, together When something is hard for your child, brainstorm what to do. One great option is to look online together for ideas. There are many websites devoted to math coaching for kids such as www.khanacademy.org/math and not only will kids learn new ideas and approaches by seeking help, they will know that they aren’t the only ones.
- Visualize calm and competence in testing situations Preparing for tests should include mindset preparation in addition to math. Have kids visualize themselves calmly working hard on the test in the classroom where they’ll take the test. Picture placing some helpful “coaches” or coaching phrases on the window sill to cheer them along.
- Separate this test from the future Kids multiply their fear by not just thinking of this one test but like dominoes falling they connect this test with other tests, with college, with their future. This is just one test, an isolated event, they shouldn’t connect the dots because it’s not true that their performance on any one test will have an irrevocable impact of their future. What is true is that carrying that burden on their backs will make it very hard to perform to their potential.
Most kids will be successful in managing their math anxiety by working on these suggestions, however, if your child has an existing anxiety disorder, or is otherwise struggling with ongoing maladaptive anxiety with tests, talk with your school guidance counselor about whether extended time accommodations are indicated.For more ideas about helping your child overcome anxiety, check out my book, Freeing Your Child from Anxiety Here’s to less math anxiety all around!
©2019 Tamar E. Chansky, Ph.D. Want more ideas delivered to your inbox? Sign up here!