Coping with Your Child’s Math Anxiety
By Dr. Kenneth Shore
Math is a troublesome subject for many students and often engenders anxiety and avoidance, as it apparently has for your daughter. This can become a self-fulfilling prophesy in which students are anxious and insecure about math, resist the subject or rush through math tasks, and thus fail to develop the necessary skills. Their resulting poor performance in turn lessens their confidence and intensifies their anxiety.
Your daughter is in good company. Girls are especially prone to math anxiety. And, if you believe the false messages they receive from various quarters, well they should be. Girls are told in subtle and not so subtle ways that they are not expected to excel in math, that math is for boys.
This message may come from parents as well as teachers. Parents may be more likely to do math activities with their sons while teachers may encourage boys more than girls to succeed in math. Even if girls have good math skills, they may shy away from succeeding in math because of fear of peer ridicule. This “real girls don’t do math” message is pervasive and is communicated at an early age when attitudes are forming. If you are dubious about the societal programming that takes place, consider that a Barbie doll was programmed to say: “Math class is tough.” (After many complaints, the manufacturer removed this statement from the doll’s repertoire.)
Girls thus learn early to avoid math. This may take the form of not pushing themselves as they do in other subjects or not pursuing advanced math courses at the secondary and college level. As a result, they may narrow their career options and be filtered out of scientific and select professional careers. Some schools have responded to this problem by offering girls-only math classes to promote their participation and foster their confidence.
Parents can play an important role in chipping away at the math blocks of their children. You need to make a special effort to encourage your daughter’s performance in math and acknowledge her successes. In addition, you might provide her with the same math games and toys that you would provide to your son. Also monitor your attitudes and comments about math. You may have unpleasant memories of math from your own school days and you may find yourself making negative comments about math or your child’s skills (“You’ve inherited my rotten math genes.,” “I couldn’t stand math either when I was in school.,” or “Most girls find math hard.”). Bite your tongue. These comments may transmit your own anxieties about math to your child. Rather make comments suggesting why the math skills she is working on are important and express your confidence that with time and persistence that she will succeed.