Understanding Math Anxiety in Students
Math anxiety is real and can be incredibly intense. Blocking a person’s ability to process, learn and overcome challenges. For a child with math anxiety in school, it can lead to failing grades, crushed self esteem, and mental health struggles. We’ve battled math anxiety and it can be hard, but there are tools out there to help children gain control over their anxiety, calm those negative thoughts, and open their minds to learning maths.
Tackling Math Anxiety
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Anxiety around math is a very real and intense for some students. It can be crippling and with a subject like math that builds on a foundations of skills and knowledge, when anxiety prevents a student from learning certain skills, the anxiety (and fear of failure), becomes a self fulling prophecy.
What is Math Anxiety?
We’ve all heard it, people of all ages saying they “don’t like math”. Really that doesn’t make sense. Math is simply numbers and putting them together in different ways. Just like reading is the putting together of letters and words. There isn’t really anything to hate. So why do people say they hate math?
Sometimes math is hard for certain people. Perhaps they didn’t have the right teachers or maybe there is a learning disability that makes numbers harder for them to work with. Saying they hate math, may simply be translated into they find math hard. And many of us don’t like doing hard things.
But with Math Anxiety there is another level. It is a fear of failure. When a person has math anxiety, they are filled with fear which cripples their ability to conduct the mental processes necessary to complete the math problems.
They are so scared of failing, that they end up doing exactly what they were so scared they would do. They can’t solve the math equations and they fail.
No one likes the feeling of failing at something. And what do many people say in these instances? I give up! I hate this! This stinks! I hate math!
So what can we do to help a student struggling with math anxiety? Here are some tips for home and the classroom.
How to Help
Address The Negative Self Talk
The first thing we need to do is put those negative thoughts in neutral. We’ve learned about this technique before. We want to break that cycle of negative feelings and impressions about oneself, so we can calm the mind and allow it to start thinking and processing more effectively.
One way to do this is have a conversation with the student. Talk about how they are feeling, what they are thinking about when they do math. Take all the negative stuff, and tell them to visualize putting it in a box that you are going to put up on the shelf for now. Or have them write or draw their feelings and thoughts on a piece of paper and either crumple it up or fold it up and put it away somewhere.
We want them to learn that they have control over those feelings. We also want them to know they are not alone in having those feelings, and that others have felt that way yet still mastered numbers. Sharing your own stories or the stories of others can be very helpful.
Another helpful tool is Mediated Learning. Mediated learning is especially helpful for kids that think their intelligence is fixed. So those students who say things like, “I’m dumb. I’m just no good at math. I can’t do math.” These students will especially benefit from a mediated learning approach which teaches them that intelligence is not fixed and they can learn, develop skills and become “smarter”.
Build an Anti-Anxiety Toolkit
Having an anxiety toolkit at home and in the classroom is so important for students battling anxiety. What goes into this toolkit varies based on the child and their needs. You can see what we included in our toolkit here.
Find Fun Ways to Practice
Get away from worksheets and find new ways to introduce and practice math concepts.
Books on Math
Reading is a great way to introduce math concepts and there are some great books out there that teach math in fun, creative ways. These are not your typical math textbooks! This approach works well for kids that are strong readers. Some of our favourite math books for elementary are here:
One book we had a lot of fun with was What’s Your Angle Pythagoras? where the Pythagorean Theorem is presented in a very approachable way, and it resulted in some fun hands on exploration and activities. Learn more about this book and how we turned it into a fun lesson here.
Another way to help kids relieve anxiety and practice math skills is to develop a physical challenge like we did with our STEM Math Challenge. Physical activity is an incredibly powerful way to reduce anxiety. Plus, it will make math fun rather than focusing on the hard.
There are some great games that also teach basic math skills. Since you are playing games, the math slips right in there without the kids even realizing that they are mastering these concepts. Just make sure that you focus on the fun aspects of the game and fostering strong connections, and don’t put too much pressure on the math aspects.
Get Real (Life)
A wonderful way to learn math is to use it in real life. Do some baking and work on those fractions. Or get building and put to use some knowledge on angles and measurements. Maybe you have a trip coming up and can work on calculating distances or building a budget.
One way I have found incredibly motivating for my kids is to have them work with real money. They set up their own budgets and spending and suddenly knowing how to do the math properly is really interesting! Learn how we teach math using compound interest as a financial learning tool.
Or have them run a lemonade stand or garage sale, or even set up a small business.
We often hear jokes about how “adults are so happy we learned algebra during tax season”. So why not bring in some real world math applications and show students how adults from all walks of life use math on a daily basis.
Remove Anxiety Inducing Pressures
This is especially important in a school setting. If you have a child struggling with math anxiety try to remove anything that might increase their anxiety and the pressure on them to perform. This might mean not calling on them to come to the front of the classroom, or removing time limits on an exam.
Learn more about our tips on dealing with anxiety in the classroom here.
One of the best ways to discover what might be contributing to the math anxiety is to talk to the student. Working together you can find ways to overcome the anxiety and master those numbers.