How to cope with math anxiety.

Posted on October 2nd, 2018 6:33pm
By: adrian

Writing – A, Physical Education – A, Reading – B+, Science – A-, Math C+.

Does this report card look familiar to you? Why does a child who has a generally high-ranking report card show such low marks in math? Does your child just not “get it” when it comes to math, but can show high levels of understanding in several other subjects or even in day-to-day connections? Perhaps homework time, specifically math time, is filled with frustration, tears and flipping to the answer book, hoping for the best. I wish someone would have recognized these signs in me as I during my elementary school years, but thankfully today’s students have many more resources to deal with a very common and- if left untreated- serious learning difficulty: it’s called Math Anxiety, and yes, it’s a real term.

Math anxiety is characterized by feelings of frustration, tension, apprehension and fear when a person manipulates numbers and can affect the overall performance within the subject area. Math anxiety can of course come up during school, but also in a wide variety of everyday situations where math is involved, which can result in a lost or shaken confidence, and can actually cause students to be so worked up that they forget information they worked hard to understand.

Some of the facts that are attached to math anxiety happen inside the classroom. First, students are surrounded by their peers during instructional time but also during recreational breaks, leaving them with little independent time to make their own decisions without being influenced by their friends. During a lesson, a student may anticipate an onset of embarrassment of not understanding a concept, or worse, getting the answer wrong in front of the whole class. Imagine if a student dreads this time of day, everyday, for the 10 months they are in school. Learning can only happen when students have an open, relaxed mind, and the embarrassment factor can easily stir up tension in their heads. Secondly, the fear arises that a student may be public exposed of their math short falls, again by either being called out by a teacher or found out by peers or family. Have you ever noticed a student “fake” a skill or conveniently forget to do something because it was too hard? The same thing can happen with math when a student has a form of math anxiety; they will pretend to understand something so they don’t have to do it again, absent-mindedly leave material at school come homework time. Students are smart- they know how to get away with not always doing what’s expected of them, and when they are motivated by fear it can be even harder to get through to them. Lastly, timed deadlines are becoming less and less common in schools because of the the stress they put on children to preform. The clock on the wall can seem like a ticking time bomb when students are uneasy about the task at hand and in the case of a student who is so nervous about math, the threat of having to get the right answer in a time frame- or even at all- can be overwhelming. Further, while teachers can offer extra time or assistance, the reality is that the lessons have got move on and there will always be work to catch up on.

Of course, if a student has any previous negative experiences with math, they will likely carry over the fear with the as they transition through school because they will associate the subject with all of the angry, confused and tired feelings they went through during their learning stages. However, just because a student is facing math anxiety- or any other subject related stress, there are several things that can be made to assist in the learning process. Ideally, the teacher or the tutor  would be able to find different methods to guide the learning, or think of ways to differentiate the instruction for the specific student and their unique needs. The term “differentiated instruction” is actually a buzzword used in the educational realm and has to do with modifying the content, process and/or product of a concept to help a student learn. By making one (or two, or all) of these changes, a light bulb may go off in the student’s head an the concepts can more easily string together. For example, if a student cannot understand how to multiply two digit  numbers together, they may need the content to be changed, so seeing the way chocolate bars are separated rather than the way numbers interact with each other (content). Or, they could easily identify with the way the multiplication process goes if they had a song to walk them through the steps (process); or they could make the actual numbers out of math manipulatives (or even candy!) to see how big two digit numbers are when they are multiplied together (product). In all of these ways, that one small change may be enough to help a student understand what’s happening on the board because they see it in a different way.

Beyond changing the instructional methods and material, there are several other environmental factors that a student can adapt to so the time spent working on math is more inviting. Working with math anxiety is all about easing the tension that the anxiety creates. It may be a good idea to explain to a student what could be going on, assuring them that it’s very normal to feel like brain “may not work” the same way others do, but that does not mean it is their fault or an unsalvageable situation. Once the conversation is started, students can more easily identify their feelings and then address them while working through their math homework. Teacher and tutors can also have access to a variety of resources through the support department at school or by conferencing with other teachers who have seen students go through the same issue. Student may feel more comfortable doing their math work if they are at home, in their favourite sweater in a homework only zone, for example, which may be enough to get them start on a few questions. If a student cannot get through the math on one particular day, it is absolutely not the end of the world. Similarly, if a student is really getting the concept, there is no need to stop, as the natural, inquiry-based learning will be more helpful to them in the long run.  Students can also seek help through the special education department of their school if the math anxiety is also attached to general anxiety or other stress-related factor

Dealing with math anxiety can be stressful for teachers, tutors and parents, but it is important to remember that the student is the one who feels it the most. It does not matter if a student comes from a “math family” or “should” be able to work with numbers seamlessly, what matters is that they get the support they need to be as successful as possible, in whatever way success looks to them. There are so many different ways to learn and just because math is one that doesn’t always work a student is no less smart than the next. Math anxiety is very common but there are so many ways to work with the child rather than against them. Your child can be tested with the resources in school to see if they fit the characteristics of math anxiety but will also be given the tools or modifications they need in order to succeed.  With the help of a tutor who a student trusts, insight from teachers and a few deep breaths, there is no problem that can’t be solved in time.