How to Conquer Your Child's Math Anxiety

by NDFAuthors

  • Jan 19, 2018

As early as kindergarten, kids are introduced to math. As they progress in grade school, children will learn math skills such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and more.

While math can be fun and challenging for some children, others will be more like “I’m not good at math” or “I don’t like math”. For kids who struggle with math – the ones who have trouble with math no matter what they try – it’s not uncommon to feel anxiety when even simply thinking about math. Math anxiety includes negative feelings about math, feelings of inadequacy and general fear and avoidance of math.

Challenges in Understanding Math Anxiety

A growing body of research shows that many adults and older students experience math anxiety. But only in recent years have researchers been looking to early childhood to understand the roots of the problem and how it is entangled with math performance. Molly Jameson, professor of educational psychology at the University of Northern Colorado who studies math anxiety in young children, indicates that it’s unclear in the literature if people with a low level of knowledge develop anxiety because they need skills or whether a low feeling of confidence leads to lack of knowledge. Exploring the causes and effects of math anxiety can help teachers identify how and where to intervene when students are struggling.

Measuring Math Anxiety

The first step in understanding math anxiety is determining how to measure how math-anxious young students are in the first place. However, the scales used to measure anxiety in adults aren’t always appropriate for young children, and there is no single scale used by most researchers.

In her Children’s Anxiety in Math Scale, Jameson uses a series of faces “” smiling face vs. frowning face for lack of anxiety/ anxiety.

Colleen Ganley, professor of psychology at Florida State University, developed a different scale for her research that asks students to answer questions about their relationship with math on a scale of “yes, kind of, not really, and no.” She also notes that some surveys ask if a child feels butterflies in his or her stomach in math class. But one child she surveyed said he felt butterflies because he loved math so much, and another associated that feeling with hunger.

Copyright: Milica Nistoran

Causes of Math Anxiety

In the study conducted at the University of Chicago, Sian Beilock, professor of psychology, found that students report worry and fear about doing math as early as first grade. Most surprisingly math anxiety harmed the highest-achieving students. According to Beilock math anxiety has a variety of sources including:

  • Prior unpleasant math experiences – Anxiety is often cumulative, and students may look back at a frustrating experience learning math from parents, or a previous bad grade from years ago.
  • Timed tests and related pressures – Even if a student has no problems completing their work at home, they could temporarily forget the needed math concepts in the middle of a major test. Since the outcome of tests usually affects a student’s overall math grade, the negative results of math anxiety reinforce their feeling of inadequacy, thus creating a cycle of anxiety and failure.
  • Risk of public embarrassment – If a student has been embarrassed in front of a sibling or group of peers when failing to correctly complete a math problem, it can make his or her anxiety worse.
  • Parental and teacher attitude towards math – Students can also pick up on their teacher’s/parent’s feelings about math. If a teacher/parent is excited and positive about math, the students will be as well. But if educators or parents are negative about it, this can have the opposite effect.

Helping students see math tests and assignments as challenges instead of threats

Parents play a crucial role in encouraging more positive attitudes in students about math. In the process students should also develop positive study habits that will help them excel in math as math concepts become more complex. Here are some ways parents can help their children avoid stress about math:

  • Positive Reinforcement

One of the best ways to help children overcome math anxiety is through positive reinforcement of their intelligence and skills. Review homework with your child and point out all the questions he or she got right. Focus on correct answers rather than mistakes. Or try to create positive emotions by connecting math to the child’s interests. For example, if the student likes sports, use sport-related word problems. It’s also beneficial to surround your child with peers and teachers who feel comfortable with and excited about math.  

  • Show them the Relevance

Kids are turned off when they don’t see a purpose for what they’re learning. Therefore, it’s important to help them connect and practice math in real life. Involve them in activities like telling time, checking temperature and using money. Have your child measure ingredients for a recipe you are making. Little ones can sort coins, older ones can help estimate the total cost while shopping or count the change at the grocery store.

  • Make Math Fun

Playing math games (using math apps, solving math puzzles or using LEGO bricks to build geometric shapes) calms kids who are naturally math anxious and allow them to practice skills in a non-threatening environment. Games also tend to be more engaging than typical math curriculum and stimulate multiple senses that accelerate learning.

  • Reframe Anxiety

Experts suggest that reframing anxiety can improve math performance. Encourage your child to discuss and write down his or her concerns and worries regarding math ahead of time. When they think critically, students can realize their fears are groundless. For younger students, expressive picture drawing, rather than writing, may also help lessen the burden of math anxiety.

How did you prevent your children from becoming math-anxious or help them overcome their math anxiety? Share with us your ideas and experiences. We’d like to hear from you.