Dealing With a Child’s Math Anxiety
By Dr. Kenneth Shore
Math, more than any other subject, engenders anxiety and avoidance in students. For many, the mere mention of the “m” word is enough to send their blood pressure skyrocketing. While it is normal for students to experience some insecurity about school subjects, the anxiety which accompanies math can be extreme and may hamper performance. The anxious student, convinced of her inability to do math, may avoid the subject or put forth little effort, leaving significant gaps in her math development. Difficulty mounts as she confronts more advanced skills, causing further anxiety and avoidance. What begins as a mild case of math avoidance can become a severe case of math anxiety.
Students with math anxiety have confidence in only one thing related to math—that they cannot do it. This belief may turn into an emotional block, causing a form of mental paralysis. Their brain seems to shut down when it detects a math concept. Fear and anxiety take the place of clear thinking, and the need to avoid looking stupid before peers becomes paramount. Math anxiety can propel the student into a downward spiral. Bewildered by the math concepts, she has difficulty focusing, contributing to further difficulties in understanding. Anxiety increases and confidence declines. The student abandons her effort to understand the concept and becomes preoccupied with obtaining the right answer.
Unless math anxiety is confronted, it can turn into a permanent block. A teacher can help chip away at this block by providing individualized academic support and bolstering the student’s confidence. A simple “you can do it” is not sufficient, however. Rather the teacher needs to prove to the student, by exposing her to a variety of success experiences, that she is more able than she thinks in doing math. In addition, instruction should move towards a real-life approach to math with more stress on understanding and less on memorization, more on application and less on computation, more on student participation and less on teacher lecture.
Teachers can play a significant role in lessening the math anxiety of their students and helping them approach math with confidence. Perhaps the best antidote to math anxiety is math mastery. The more students understand the math concepts, the less anxiety they will experience. Similarly, the better prepared they are for tests, the less likely they will become flustered or block during the exam.
What You Can Do
- Be aware of the messages you convey to students about math. Just as parents can help to shape their children’s attitudes towards math, teachers can have a similar impact on their students. If you are anxious about the subject, make sure not to convey your feelings to the students through your comments. Express confidence in their abilities, telling them that if they stick with it they will eventually catch on.
- Be calm and patient. This is especially important for the math-anxious student because the slightest sign of teacher impatience may cause her to shut down. Create a climate in which students have no fear in asking a question or offering a wrong answer. Present instructions in a clear, calm manner and give the student time to process them and formulate a question. If you feel yourself becoming impatient while working with a student, try backing off for a while. Your impatience may only increase her anxieties and intensify her confusion. If you find that the student continues to be very anxious despite your calming efforts, take her aside and suggest that she try breathing deeply as a way of lessening her anxiety.
- Encourage the student to ask questions. Students with math anxiety are often reluctant to ask questions in class for fear of appearing dumb or being taken to task by the teacher for not listening. Make it clear to your students that you want them to ask questions and leave time at the end of class for this purpose. Tell them that there is no such thing as a dumb question and that their questions help you by indicating where you may not have been clear. Even with your encouragement, however, some students will still feel uncomfortable asking questions in class so make yourself available to them after class or at the end of the day. Respond positively to a student’s question, describing it as a “good question” or an “important point.” Make sure not to allow students to ridicule a classmate’s questions.
- Promote the student’s confidence. Students with math anxiety are almost always insecure in their abilities. They may assume they will not understand a math concept or be able to do a problem. This lack of confidence may impair their concentration and hamper their performance. Help to reshape their negative views towards math by praising their successes and highlighting what they have done well. Back up your words with evidence of their ability to be successful with math. In presenting math work, start with problems that they can complete easily and, as they master the easier problems, move on to the more difficult ones. Allow students to find alternative routes to solving problems so they learn there is not just one right way to find the answer. The hope is that students will come to view their skills in a more positive light and not be as intimidated at the prospect of tackling math problems.
- Help the student make sense of math concepts. Many math-anxious students approach math as a series of procedures to be memorized, not understood. When their memory fails, however, or a problem is presented which falls outside the rules they have memorized, performance falters and anxiety results. Take the mystery out of math by helping students understand the reason behind the rule they are memorizing. In short, teach them the “why” as well as the “how.” The better they understand a concept, the more effectively they will retain and apply it.
- Use concrete objects to foster understanding. Many students find math concepts abstract and thus hard to understand. Using objects, or what educators call manipulatives, can help them grasp and visualize these concepts in a way that words cannot. The objects may include anything which can be counted or conveys quantity or amount such as blocks, beads, coins, poker chips, or Cuisenaire rods. Sand and water can also be used to convey amount. As an example, cutting an apple in parts can help students grasp the notion of fractions in a way that worksheets can’t. Of course, as the student’s understanding grows, she can move from the concrete to the conceptual.
- Make math relevant. “Why do we need to do this anyway?” is a common refrain heard from math students. Answer this question by showing them. Demonstrate for students how the skills they are learning are used in everyday life, how this seemingly disconnected set of facts and procedures relates to the real world. They will be more comfortable with math concepts if they understand their practical value and learn to apply them. Give them problems which relate to their interests and age level and which they may encounter outside of school.
- Make math fun. Teachers can use a wide variety of math games to reinforce skills and promote a positive association with math. These can be board games, card games, or games that you or the students create. Typically easy to play and requiring little time, games help to break up the classroom routine. Keep the games tension-free and relatively non-competitive. Also use the computer to stimulate enthusiasm for math. Many good software programs are available for students of all ages.
- Make a special effort to encourage girls in math. Girls are more vulnerable to math anxiety than boys, especially in the middle and high school years. Part of their insecurity may stem from the messages they receive from both parents and teachers. Monitor the messages you send to girls about math. Make sure that you do not sell them short by, for example, attending more to boys in math class or suggesting that girls avoid challenging math courses. Rather show confidence in their ability to do math, encourage them to take risks, and give them a chance to compete on a par with the boys in the class.