“I hate math.”
“Math is hard.”
“I can’t do math.”
“I was good at math until…(fill in the blank)”
Whenever I hear a student say any of these statements my heart is saddened just a bit. My heart is saddened because I understand where these feelings are coming from, but most of the time they don’t.
I’ve spent years as a math teacher and as a subject matter expert (SME), and one thing that I’ve learned is that everyone is good at math and can do math!
Now, there are lots of factors that affect learners, particularly kids. These factors range from poor instruction, to a lack of understanding, to simply needing a growth mindset. I will discuss more about these in upcoming articles.
Today I want to focus on one specific factor and that’s math anxiety.
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What is math anxiety?
First things first, math anxiety is a real, physiological thing. It’s not just psychological. It’s not the boogie man that we shouldn’t speak about with our kids. It’s a real thing.
Math anxiety is a “feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear that interferes with [one’s] math performance.” (Mark Ashcraft - Math Anxiety: Personal, educational and cognitive consequences; 2002)
Stanford University has done extensive research on the subject, and they have concluded that math anxiety is a form of PTSD. This stimulus response triggers the Fight or Flight response in people who suffer from it.
That’s right kids (or maybe even you) who experience math anxiety biologically feel as if they are in a life or death situation.
Math anxiety causes all kinds of wonky things to happen in your brain. As a result, of this response, the reasoning and sense making part of our brain shuts down along with our ability to retrieve memories.
I don’t know about you, but I definitely find it difficult to do math, when my reasoning and memory has stopped working.
Perhaps you’ve observed your child doing their math homework, and they hit a point of struggle. You may notice one of two different behaviors:
Sharing is Caring
So remember, I mentioned that I’m a math teacher and SME. I spent the better part of 2018 traveling the country training teachers how to recognize math anxiety and help students overcome it.
Simultaneously, I had a third grader, who later became a fourth grader at home, who was actually beginning to experience symptoms of math anxiety. I knew what to do, and I understood where her responses were coming from.
However, all of this knowledge didn’t make it any easier.
In fact sometimes it felt more difficult, because I knew why she would burst into tears over fractions.
She’s my daughter, and I wanted to just tell her the answers to make her feel better. However, I also knew that giving her the answers would not help her to deal with her anxiety.
Eventually, my daughter and I had a discussion about her anxiety.
I used a picture of the brain to explain to her what was happening and why. I removed the stigma, and informed her. It took some time but eventually I was able to convince her that the feelings of dread, foggy brain and forgetfulness weren’t her fault but just her brain doing it’s job.
Recognizing the symptoms of math anxiety
Some symptoms are easily identifiable when doing math such as nausea, unusual nervousness, panic, intense sweating.
Others may not be so obvious such as tension or forgetfulness.
For example, when I’m speaking at a conference, and the room is full of teachers. I’m fine, but when I turn to the board to demonstrate a math problem my anxiety can be triggered.
All of a sudden I become apprehensive about my abilities, and before I know it I have forgotten what’s 12 x 9. Then I become more nervous and completely forget how to add.
Another example is when I am attending a training with other math teachers, and we’re given a math task my anxiety kicks in.
I no longer am focused on the task, but I begin checking the grammar of the task. Gotta make sure all of those commas are in the right place!
Keep in mind that math anxiety isn’t just for learners who struggle. In fact high performing students can develop it more quickly than their peers.
I’m awesome at math, and the examples I shared demonstrate that I too have math anxiety. Remember math anxiety causes cognitive interference. This can happen to even honor roll students.
Recognizing any math anxiety in our kids, ourselves or yes even their teachers is important. Research shows that this trauma can be transferred. Studies have shown that a large number of elementary teachers experience math anxiety, and the students easily pick up on this.
Likewise we as parents may deal with our own math anxiety, and we openly feed our kids’ anxiety by complaining about new math vs old math or stating that math is hard.
Remember math anxiety is trauma based. Experiencing others’ trauma can help foster the exact trauma in our kids.
A good technique for battling this is to engage in growth mindset values. An example of this is: Learning from and valuing our mistakes. By taking the emphasis off of correct answers and placing it on using mistakes as learning opportunities, we can help to reduce this trauma for our kids and even ourselves.
Read more about how to develop a growth mindset.
Dr Jo Boaler, from Stanford University, has a fantastic book called Mathematical Mindsets. She deals with this topic for both teachers and parents. By changing our mindsets we can help to develop growth mindsets for our kids.
Here are a few books I recommend on math and mindsets.
In my next post I will share methods for overcoming math anxiety. I used these with my fourth grader, and she is doing much better with her anxiety. She still has her moments, but she is aware of what is happening to her and why. Consequently, she’s better equipped to deal with it.
That’s Cynthia’s Mindset on How to Recognize Math Anxiety
Remember to keep a live and learn mindset!
Share the mindset with others. Let’s help one another be better.
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I'm passionate about learning and helping our kids foster a learner's mindset. Empowering you with the resources you need is my goal. It's all about learning here!