It can happen in what feels like an instant. Your happy, confident kid suddenly doesn’t want to do something they once enjoyed–or at least didn’t mind. They are scared and overwhelmed. They’re anxious.
It’s always alarming when panicky, overwhelming thoughts creep into your child’s life. When it’s math anxiety, though, it’s particularly challenging. Math is a constant in a student’s life so it can be tough to know how to handle this one.
But as always, I want to help you try, because I know it’s on the heart of so many parents! So today let’s break it down like this:
Math anxiety can be hard to define. Sure, lots of kids say they dislike or even hate math. But math anxiety is stronger than just not having a preference for the subject.
Math anxiety is marked by a fear of failure in the subject. A child with math anxiety may find themselves unable to perform when it comes time to get their books out and do problems. They may become increasingly avoidant of it, and even have moments of panic about doing math work.
Additionally, they may start to label themselves in terms of how they do at math. “I’m not good at math.” “I stink at math.”
So what causes math anxiety? Where does it come from? No one expects that a child will go from learning their ABC’s and 123’s to having continuous meltdowns over equations.
Often a child with math anxiety will focus on the negative or on things that have gone wrong. They will see a paper marked up and let a few missed answers overwhelm the majority of ones they got right.
Math anxiety may also come about as a response to some sort of pressure they feel is being applied to them. Some kids feel tremendous pressure when their math work is timed.
Others may hear a parental comment about the importance of math and feel more pressure than they should. And, in fairness, some parents really do put an undue amount of pressure on our kids to do well in math or even to work ahead of what they are capable of.
Similarly, some students may pick up on feelings about math from their parent or teacher. A parent who loves math may have an easier time instilling a love of the subject in their child. A teacher who is insecure about their own ability to teach or do math, or who struggled with math in the past may unwittingly pass on their feelings in how they talk about it.
Math anxiety can also come about when a child is worried about being embarrassed in front of a group. This happens most often in a classroom setting, but even homeschooled kids may feel embarrassed if a sibling or parent hears of a poor grade or a struggle they are having.
Finally, math anxiety can start when someone falls into the comparison trap. This may be a child comparing themselves to a sibling or a peer, or from a parent comparing their child to a friend, another of their children, or even themselves!
We all know different people have different strengths and weaknesses. But the process of learning that can be anxiety-producing for children.
Plus, every child learns at their own pace. Just like with physical growth, it’s difficult to know when they will suddenly have a learning growth spurt, and when they might linger in one place for a while. Comparing one child to anyone else can cause unnecessary anxiety for them, and if it continues, turn into a long-term problem.
As I said before, every person has things they prefer to do over others. There’s no need to worry if your child prefers their science or literature work over math.
But if you observe a child being stressed out thinking about math work or being unwilling to even try their lessons, it’s time to pay attention.
Often a child experiencing math anxiety will feel isolated in their struggle. This might look like them expressing that “No one else struggles with math like I do.” Or, “So-and-so always gets a 100! I never do.”
Math anxiety can also look like a child who expects failure, rather than success, when the math books come out. They may wonder why they need to do it if they are just going to fail. And they may become avoidant about doing math at all.
A student who is suffering from math anxiety may also start to rely on others to do the work for them. This is not them requesting you to sit nearby for support, but rather declaring they can’t do it and waiting for someone else to do the work for them.
Finally, in worst case scenarios, math anxiety may take the form of true panic. Panic is an overpowering and unreasonable fear that can cause a physical response. This may include an accelerated heart rate and breathing, dizziness, and/or nausea. While this sort of response may not make sense to us, it feels very real and very scary, to someone who is experiencing it!
First, and I would say this to teachers of ALL students: we need to focus on what is RIGHT and on PROGRESS. In his essay, “Marking and Grading,” Andrew Pudewa writes:
“Thinking back, how many of us looked at all those red marks on the paper we turned in and thought, “I’m so grateful for the time that teacher took to mark this paper…I’m going to study and reflect on every one of these comments so that next time I can do better and improve my grade!”
No. Most of us saw all those marks and likely thought, “I’m dumb…I’m stupid…I’m not good at this…I wish I didn’t have to do it.”
It is so easy for us as teachers to get trapped into “ex post facto” teaching, where we take what the student turns in and then, verbally or in writing, tell them everything they should and could have done better. So often the student isn’t really hearing what we’re saying; to them we sound like the adults in the old Charlie Brown TV shows.
Instead, consider Anna Ingham’s motto: “Teach at the point of need.” This means that we must design our lessons based on what the students need to know, when they need to know it, and not give a lesson just because it is on the next page of the workbook or because it conforms to someone else’s schedule.”
Now, Pudewa is a writing teacher, but the idea holds: All too often the way we approach grading is that we give back a paper and demand corrections on what is wrong, rather than celebrating all that is right.
One reason parents love Online Grading is that it frees them up to do just that. Instead of spending time doing the grading, they can use their precious schooling time to go over HOW to correct problems and spend time pointing out the improvements.
Perhaps your student got fewer problems incorrect. Maybe they needed fewer tries to get it right. Maybe they showed what they know in less time. Maybe all they missed was a step that would’ve gotten them the right answer. This is the part of grading that instills confidence, rather than causing anxiety.
If you do choose to go “Old School” with your grading, I would encourage you to find a system that employs less red pencil and big “X”s on the paper. Seriously–try marking problems in orange, or purple!
You could also consider circling incorrect problems and writing “See Me!” or “Let’s’ Work on This!” instead of just marking them wrong. Then follow through and spend some time on what needs to be corrected, together. This can make a child feel like they have a partner in learning, rather than viewing math as an enemy that they just can’t defeat.
Second, work on reframing anxiety. Anxiety is a symptom that something is wrong. The child doesn’t feel comfortable doing math. It does not need to define them and it does not need to get wrapped up into their identity!
If anxiety is a symptom, we simply need to delve into what’s causing it and work to fix it. That’s easier said than done, but starting there can help you both work toward a solution. There are some great tips here that you may be able to apply toward a child who is struggling with math anxiety.
Third, you may find that you need some outside help to strengthen your child’s confidence and lessen their math anxiety.
Another option is an in-person tutor. Tutors can be helpful, but it is often an expensive fix.
This is where an online teacher like me can work wonders for a struggling child. If you are not already a Nicole the Math Lady subscriber, then please, try my free trial! I work hard to make math fun and help kids see that math doesn’t have to be a grind!
And even with outside help, know that you may still need to work with your child to help them with feelings of math anxiety! You can do this by making math fun. Offer them rewards for effort, not perfection. Connect lessons to their interests. Use real-life math to show them why it’s important to strive for success in math.
Believe me, I understand that all of this is hard. But it’s a worthwhile struggle–it’s never easy to see a child feel completely overwhelmed by a subject!
I promise, math anxiety CAN be conquered. And it’s so worth it to try! I hope that these tools will help you and your student to define what they are experiencing, identify some causes and symptoms of math anxiety, and finally, gaining some tools to overcome it.
Have you gone through a math anxiety period with your child? What helped? I’d love to hear your experiences so please leave them in the comments below!
Talk to you soon,
Nicole the Math Lady