8 Empowering Ways to Beat Math Anxiety

I had the privilege of interviewing 5 professionals in learning, mathematics and educational psychology. They each answered questions on math anxiety and math disabilities and the relationship between the two.

From their responses, I’ve distilled 8 things that you as a parent, teacher, tutor or homeschooler can do to help a child with math anxiety.

1. Understand what it is.

The current Wikipedia definition of math anxiety is anxiety about one’s ability to do math, regardless of skill. My experts agreed that math anxiety is when the fear and frustration due to stress about math gets overwhelming. The stressors can include:

  1. Slower performance than peers
  2. Insufficient or inappropriate instruction
  3. History of failures or bad experiences with math
  4. Culture, gender and stereotypes
  5. A math disability, such as dyscalculia or weak learning skills

2. Understand what it isn’t.

Math anxiety is not a disability in itself. Susan J. Schwartz is the director of the Learning and Diagnostics Center at the Child Mind Institute. She notes the following four categories of math disabilities. Notice that math anxiety is not one of these. Math anxiety can be caused by mishandling of any of these math disabilities, though.

  1. Difficulty with basic math facts and memory.
  2. Weakness in doing calculations.
  3. Inability to apply math concepts.
  4. Struggles with visual and spacial relationships.

Rebecca Zook is a veteran math tutor and blogger at Zook Tutoring. She encourages her students to view math anxiety as a disability only if it helps them get the proper assistance. If you or a student frames the problem as a disability when it’s not, though, it is possible to get mired in the attitude of “I have a disability, so I just can’t do it.” Zook cautions against this.

3. Prevent math anxiety if you can.

By creating a positive math environment from the start, you can prevent much of math anxiety. There are times, though, when more is happening to create the problem than just a bad environment.

If a disability is at play, early recognition is the key. Helping the student find the appropriate instruction or assistance can be the best way to prevent math anxiety from creeping in. If you suspect a disability, have your child tested, or encourage the parents to have your student tested.

Tanya Mitchell, VP of R&D for LearningRx, notes that “strong learners are made, not born.” Strengthening learning skills early can help your student completely alleviate math anxiety by giving him or her the skills necessary for learning.

4. Display positive feelings about math.

If you have a prejudice against math, it will show.

If you’re a classroom teacher and you don’t fully understand some concepts, seek help yourself. Don’t become frustrated or angry when a student asks for an explanation that you can’t provide. It’s okay to say, “Let me look that up and I’ll get back with you tomorrow.” If necessary, ask me.

As a parent or homeschooler, it’s time to have a strong math backbone. Quit badmouthing math. Erase the pained look on your face when discussing it. You can do it.

5. Make sure others display positive feelings about math, too.

In a classroom setting, watch the other students. If the “math kid” is abused, there should be concern for the whole class. This type of bullying could lead to a bandwagon of hating math, just to avoid the abuse.

If you’re a parent, be aware of how the teacher treats math. If you’re a teacher or tutor, get to know the parents’ math views. Homeschoolers, is the other parent math phobic?

You’re part of a learning team. If you treat math with respect and joy and others on your team don’t, have a talk. Everyone needs to be on the same page – the page of positivity in math.

6. Do the things that you have power to do.

Dr. Kari Miller, director of Miller Educational Excellence, says that helping students see how math is used in their lives can reduce anxiety. Shopping, banking and travelling all use math and are skills they’ll need and use. She also recommends places like FunBrain.com to find calculation games that help kids connect to math at their own level.

Tanya Mitchell of LearningRx encourages playing games that work on core cognitive skills. She offers this list of everyday games (computer and board games) that shows which cognitive skills are strengthened by each.

You can also tutor your own child. But be cautious of working beyond him or her. Follow the lead of the student. Chris Frank founder of Ignition Tutoring and an experienced tutor himself, encourages one on one teaching to be at the student’s own pace. Although most tutors and parents are held captive by the pace of the school, you can build in more study time on nights and weekends to work slowly if needed.

7. Know when to get help.

If your help, as a parent, isn’t working or if you don’t have the time, look into hiring a private tutor. As a teacher, if you think additional help is needed at home, recommend tutoring.

If a disability is suspected or tutoring doesn’t seem to help, perhaps testing is the next step. Having a child tested does two things:

  1. If they do not have a cognitive function disability, you can move on to finding other reasons for the difficulty.
  2. If they do have a disability, you can work to correct it.

Public schools usually offer testing for free, but this can take time due to their backlog.

If you’re in need of a quick result and are willing to pay for it, you can ask a local private school which company they use. You can also find local testing centers through larger organizations like LearningRx or Child Mind Institute.

8. Find help when it’s time.

If your child is ready for tutoring, or testing has revealed the need for further help, you can find most of the resources you need relatively easily.

You can find face to face tutors through local or online services, friends who have their own children tutored or through local colleges. You can hire an online tutor, also. Places like Zook Tutoring and Ignition Tutoring work with kids through Skype. Make sure that your chosen tutor has some experience with kids with math anxiety. Also, watch to ensure he or she builds a positive relationship with your child. Monitor not only the grades but the excitement before, during and after tutoring sessions.

If you learn your child is having more difficulties than can be handled with basic tutoring, you find an educational therapist through places like Miller Educational Excellence. Testing centers can also recommend therapists. Some testing centers, like LearningRx and Child Mind Institute have plans already in place for assistance as soon as the test results are in.

Feeling better about helping your kid beat math anxiety? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

6 Responses to 8 Empowering Ways to Beat Math Anxiety

  1. As a mathematics educator having worked in Australia, UK and USA, I find the main, but not sole, factor in mathematics anxiety to be early learned pressure to be right.

    This anxiety is induced, most often in my experience, by early grade teachers who view mathematics as something to be “learned” which they must “teach” in order for students to get it right (otherwise they, the teachers, wouldn’t be doing their job, in their eyes).

    Kids love to count. Why? Partly because they learned in fun ways from their mothers.

    Kids love to play with numbers, space, and arrangement problems. Kids hate being tested.

    Early grade teachers should play more, and test less often in subtle, not overt, ways.

    • Thanks for the comment, Gary.

      My mom just took (and passed) a big test for a license in her line of work. I commented to my sister, “I miss tests.”

      So I’m not sure that it is that we shouldn’t test. I agree that the pressure to be right is totally misplaced. But testing can be fun, if it is set up that way. Maybe if parents taught kids to take tests the same fun way as they teach them to count…

  2. This is a common problem. Nowadays, students are very likely to avoid STEM, especially math. Students should take math from school level so that they don’t have to face any problem in future. Schools also should take the matter seriously. Unfortunately most of the public schools do not do so. Students can try online math tutoring services like tutorteddy.com for free math help / solutions (video / text) if schools cannot offer.

    • Yes, Sandy, it is sad. Alas, public school systems are the focus of such a push to prove themselves that so much time is distracted from just good old fashioned learning.

      Thank you for your comment!

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