If you’ve ever heard someone say, “I am not good at math,” “I hate math,” or “Math just doesn’t make sense to me,” chances are you are witnessing math anxiety firsthand. Math anxiety is a real challenge facing students and educators today, and estimates show that 20 percent, to as high as 50 percent, of Americans suffer from some form of math anxiety.  

What is math anxiety?

Math anxiety is a deep feeling of worry, fear, or anxiousness in one’s ability to understand and perform at math. But math anxiety does not stop at feelings. Rather, these strong negative emotions set off a self-defeating cycle of anxiety that leads to poor performance, which leads to more anxiety followed by more poor performance. This cycle can be crippling to a student’s confidence and sense of academic achievement and can even begin to have a ripple effect on other subjects and areas of life outside of math.

What causes math anxiety?

According to researchers, math anxiety does not have a single cause but is the result of multiple negative experiences and conceptions about math that take place over the course of a person’s life.

These experiences can be as seemingly innocuous as a parent reflecting aloud to their children about their own dislike of math. It also could be partially triggered by a negative experience in class when a student misunderstood a problem and felt embarrassed in front of a teacher or fellow students. In some cases, it can even be as direct and demotivating as someone telling a student that he or she is just not good at math.

The problem is that once a person believes that he or she is incapable of understanding or performing at math then performance suffers, and the downward cycle begins.

Tips for Helping Your Student Overcome Math Anxiety

There are a variety of studies and approaches being suggested by researchers and educators on how to help students overcome their mental math phobia. Here are a few common ways of how to help a child with math anxiety.

1. Be alert for early signs of math anxiety.

Awareness is the first step in curing math anxiety. By being aware of math anxiety and its symptoms, you can help a student overcome it. So, when you hear a student express frustration at math or say something self-deprecating about his or her own abilities in math, take action! The good news is that math anxiety is curable, and there are a variety of practical math anxiety solutions that you can implement each day as an educator to help your students.

2. Tackle common math myths head on

Once you’ve identified math anxiety in a student, begin by tackling the math myths that a student believes about himself or herself. Whether you’re dealing with the myth that boys are better at math than girls, or students who believe they are mentally incapable of understanding math, it’s important that your students hear you dispel the myth. By carefully and tactfully identifying and confronting these myths, you can help your student begin to see the truth about their own capabilities. Your intervention in this way can play an essential role in reinspiring a student’s confidence in their abilities and helping him or her on to a path of future success in math.

3. Foster a growth mindset

One of the first truths your students must understand is the amazing ability of their own minds to develop an understanding and ability to perform in math. The brain is an incredible organ capable of amazing things. One important truth to emphasize is that the part of the brain responsible for mathematical computation can grow and develop, regardless of age, gender, or heredity. This simple fact is empowering to many students and helps them understand that it’s just a matter of finding the right approach to understanding and performing well at math.

4. Develop a new approach

Researchers have noted that anxiety uses up the brains working memory bandwidth. Much like RAM on a computer, when the brain’s working memory is maxed out with anxiety and fear about math, it will inevitably suffer performance hits when it comes to mathematical operations.

Teachers can encourage students to practice deep breathing prior to math assignments to help relax or to write out their anxieties ahead of time. Research indicates that simple steps like these can help students identify their mental math phobia, reduce anxiety, and clear up the brain’s working memory to focus on the task at hand.

5. Show vs. tell

The next step in the process is to conduct the math teaching process in new and fresh ways. Try to determine your student’s particular learning style and cater to his or her particular strengths and weaknesses. For example, for a visual learner try to equate mathematical concepts with real-world applications that help them understand the interrelatedness of the various concepts. If a student is a doer, let them interact with the problems themselves and reflect on them aloud.

Technology, such as interactive touchscreen panels and tablets, can be hugely helpful at this point in the process. These tools open up new ways for teachers to engage collaboratively with students at math. There are countless math apps, pre-built lessons, and games on these devices that can be used to meet the needs of various learning styles.

6. Practice, practice, practice

Be sure to set the expectation early that success will not be immediate. While you may see some immediate results from implementing the above steps, you likely won’t see a student go from math anxiety to math champion overnight. It will take a lot of practice and hard work over the long-term, and it may even be one step forward two steps backward at times. But with persistence, focus, and graciousness in your approach, you can help guide your students down the path towards long-term victory over math anxiety.

7. Reward success

Each time you see a student comprehend something new or make a leap in their math understanding, it is essential to reward this achievement with words of affirmation and praise. This is key to inspiring confidence, which can lead to even further improved performance. Similar to math anxiety creating a crippling downward cycle, math confidence creates an upward trajectory built upon step-by-step.

8. Keep the end goal in mind

In theory, knowing that you can help a student overcome math anxiety is inspiring, but it can be discouraging if you don’t see results right away. At times like this, it is important to remember the end goal and the role that you play as an educator. It is not easy, but it is deeply rewarding when you begin to see the results of your labors in the long-term. So, don’t lose sight of the end goal and keep up the good work!

May 17, 2019

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