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Math Anxiety: When 2(x-2)=10 Strikes Fear In Your Heart

Does your child struggle with math? 'Mathemaphobia's' lasting impact on students is a growing issue in schools and STEM career paths

When I was in third grade, I didn’t understand division. My father tried to help me, but he would become so exasperated that he’d yell at me. I couldn’t get it. Of course, the yelling didn’t help. To this day, I struggle with math. I have what researchers call a textbook case of math anxiety.

Math anxiety is an unpleasant and apprehensible reaction to math. Research shows that it affects 25 percent of four-year college students and can affect students as young as first-graders. Math anxiety is linked with lower achievement in math and is known to persist even in adulthood. Because of the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) crisis (the greater demand for workers in these fields and our inability to meet those demands), math anxiety is a very real issue in schools, one that, if not tackled, could have lasting impacts on students.

Why worry?

Researcher Erin Maloney, Ph.D., of the University of Chicago, together with Sian Beilock, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, has been studying math anxiety (see our article Crunching Numbers for more). What she found is that math anxiety stems from a combination of factors.

“We believe that children who start formal schooling with less advanced numerical and mathematical skills may be more likely to become anxious about math,” Maloney says. “We also know that a parent’s math anxiety can transfer to their children, particularly when parents frequently help their children with their math homework.” Finally, a teacher’s attitudes toward math, Maloney says, may impact how a student responds to math.

Stereotypes are also hampering math success. How many times have you heard someone say, “I’m just not good at math”? Or that boys are better at math than girls? What about the belief that you can either do math or you can’t?

The fact is that all students can be good at math. But in order for this to happen, we have to change how we think about, talk about and teach math.


Recently, Jo Boaler, a Stanford University professor of math education, wrote an article for The Atlantic titled “The Math-Class Paradox.” Boaler believes that the way we teach math today is less about learning and more about taking tests. According to Boaler, educators know that math is best learned in a positive and growth-aimed classroom, but because schools are enmeshed in a test-driven learning culture, math is more about performance.

In today’s classroom, math often consists of timed tests, flash cards and math-app races. Boaler wrote that students typically say that to be good at math, they have to be fast thinkers. Instead, Boaler counters, math is a subject that evolves from careful and deep thought.

Emphasizing tests more than deep learning “backfires in all sorts of ways, math anxiety being one,” says Mark Ashcraft, a professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Even with that current emphasis, he says, math anxiety is nothing new.

“The very first mention of ‘mathemaphobia’ was in the early 1950s,” Ashcraft says.  Now, it is more closely tied to how teachers teach math and the messages that they send about math, especially the emotional messages, he says. Maloney agrees: “Our research suggests that teachers’ attitudes about math may impact students’ beliefs about math, so there may also be a link between teachers’ attitudes and students’ math anxiety.”

Ditch that baggage

Unfortunately, a parent’s attitude might also influence whether a student has math anxiety.  In my family, my lack of math ability is well documented, often drawing a “I’ll wait until Dad gets home” response when my child asks math questions. Maloney’s research found that what happens at home may contribute to a kid’s risk for math anxiety. For instance, if a parent has math anxiety and frequently helps his child with math, that child may be predisposed to math anxiety.

This doesn’t mean we get a hall pass when it comes to helping our kids, though.

Experts say that a child’s math education should begin with positive math talk and activities. If not, that child is at more risk for math anxiety because she has never been exposed to the fundamental building blocks, like counting or simple calculations. That’s why, Maloney says, it is important for parents to begin math education early and at home.

What can parents do?

Practice early math education at home, even before children enter formal schooling. “When parents frequently engage in math talk with their young children, their children are quicker to acquire foundational math skills,” Maloney says. For ideas about how to teach math at home and incorporate math into play, such as with Lego, visit our education portal.

If, as a parent, you have math anxiety, consider finding a tutor or asking a teacher for more help. Finally, just as you have learned to do with body image, always speak positively about math. Ways to do this include finding math in everyday life — count bugs or rocks on a hike; turn block or toy car play or a baking project into learning about fractions; charge kids with budgeting their own money and allowance before being allowed to spend it on a desired item — and approaching math challenges with a sense of enthusiasm and fun.

For children with math anxiety:

Parents with older children can try the following: 

  • Encourage them to write out their feelings prior to a math test. This will free up their working memory from the anxiety they feel, making it easier for them to remember what they have studied. Research has shown that journaling helps ease academic anxiety.
  • Try to reframe the anxiety by encouraging them to see math as a challenge, rather than a chore. Use a growth mindset language ( Instead of saying, “This is too hard,” encourage with statements like, “This might take some effort.”

Parents with younger children can also try the following:

  • Count ordinary objects. When my son and I were in the car, we would count the trucks on the road. Count things that you find at the grocery, like lemons; add simple items together.
  • Do visual comparisons for spatial math learning. Is a grapefruit bigger or smaller than an orange?
  • Introduce set sizes. If we put three oranges in this bag and three bananas in this bag, how many oranges are there? How many bananas? How many altogether?
  • Avoid stereotypes. Starting early, introduce books that feature boys and girls engaging in non-gender-specific activities. Find female scientists and engineers in the media you present to your child and the toys she plays with.
  • Encourage tactile play with more puzzles and blocks.
  • For connected kids, check out math apps like Bedtime Math.

Of course, when schools are test-driven, finding a solution to math anxiety can be more challenging. According to Ashcraft, the research is still relatively new on math anxiety, and most schools don’t know what to do about it. So, if your child has a teacher who has math anxiety or seems to be encouraging or exacerbating it, consider talking to the teacher. Offer to help in the classroom with students who have trouble with math.

On a grander scale, encourage your principal to read articles about math anxiety, or to include a link to this article in your PTA newsletter. Ask her to add training for overcoming math anxiety in the school’s professional development instruction.

Finally, remember that the more you do as a parent to make math, inside and outside school, a positive experience, the greater the chance that your child will have a positive math experience, too. Repeat after me: Math is fun!

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