When you ask kids what they’re afraid of, math is not a common answer. They’re thinking about spiders or monsters or that creepy feeling you can sometimes get when you’re alone.
However, the fear of math is very real.
According to Public School Review, the national average for math proficiency in public schools is 47 percent. This leaves plenty of room for improvement, including figuring out how to properly address the challenges of math that can lead to anxiety.
It’s time to reduce math trauma and give students a way to grasp the math skills that will serve them throughout the rest of their lives.
What is math anxiety?
When students feel stressed or anxious when having to do math, they could be experiencing math anxiety.
Math trauma can follow a person in adulthood. It’s more than feeling a little nervous when asked to answer a math problem or having a moment of frustration when doing math homework.
These feelings transition into anxiety when a student has an emotional reaction to math, no matter what. If shouting out the answer to 3+5 as an eighth grader leads to sweaty palms, that student has math anxiety.
Ignoring math anxiety, or assuming it’s something a student will overcome as they learn more, can lead to long-standing issues.
A student can convince themselves they’re simply bad at math, even if they’re not, just because of the emotional reaction they have when confronted with math. This can lead to struggles in adulthood when it comes to doing math on a professional level and may even prevent them from careers that require math computations on a regular basis.
The change in STEM pedagogy
Unfortunately, the question of what causes math anxiety is very much a chicken-and-egg situation. It has been argued for years, whether the chicken or egg comes first, and the same can be said when looking at math anxiety.
Does it come before a student performs poorly in math, or does struggling in math lead to math anxiety? The answer might be different for every student.
Having trouble learning numbers can definitely play into the mix, but young students especially can feel influenced emotionally in ways that generate a fear of math, even if it wasn’t hard for them to begin with.
Symptoms of those with a fear of math
Math anxiety can appear in children as young as six. Even before complicated math, like algebra, gets introduced, nerves can take over and impair a student’s ability to think through and solve mathematical problems.
Children experiencing this anxiety often get lower scores on math tests and assessments and don’t feel confident in their own math skills.
The problem with math trauma is that it’s sometimes hard to identify. Based on the actual physical manifestations of anxiety a student feels, you could miss it.
If that student isn’t expressing outward frustration, like an emotional outburst of some kind, or even asking for help, it is still possible to see math anxiety if you know what you’re looking for. A few more pronounced symptoms can include:
- Trying to get out of doing math in the classroom. Do you have a student who constantly has to go to the bathroom during math time? Do you catch certain students taking more and being disruptive when it’s time to do math? These could be avoidance tactics that stem from math anxiety.
- Students who have trouble answering math questions when called upon in class or whose math grades are significantly lower than in other subjects. Especially if they are on level or above in every other subject, this could signify that something isn’t connecting right, and a fear of math may be at the heart of the issue.
- Negative self-expressions are harder to catch but are also a sign of math anxiety. If you hear a student say they hate math or will never be able to get a problem right or a topic figured out — this defeatist attitude can also come from math trauma.
Approaching a student to ask why they’re doing whatever it is that’s triggered you to ask about math anxiety can help confirm that they’re suffering from the issue.
Asking them what they’re afraid of or concerned about when it comes to math can also open the door for you to provide some positive and supportive feedback to help get them comfortable.
Addressing math anxiety symptoms post-COVID
One issue that may be more common post-COVID relates to students having a complete understanding of the mathematical process.
For those who learned virtually in the earlier years of their education, moving on to more complex problem-solving may not feel connected to the foundational math they learned previously.
The interruptions in teaching and the self-paced learning they had to do previously could have weakened the realization that math builds on itself and it’s a process.
Making sure your students understand how each step influences the next and why specific actions are required to solve certain types of problems can help.
Don’t assume that students coming out of the pandemic thoroughly learned everything they should have before coming into your course. You may need to backtrack a little.
Strategies for overcoming math anxiety
Helping students suffering from math anxiety means finding an intervention strategy that works for that particular student.
Age and external issues can all impact this, but a successful tactic interrupts the brain from experiencing the anxiety, allowing the student to face the (mathematical) issue in a more calm and rational state.
For example, asking students to write down what makes them nervous about math before they do the work can help them reach better levels of success.
For older students, learning a few breathing exercises to do as math anxiety begins to rear its ugly head can have a positive difference.
You can also modify how you handle math in your class if you notice many students getting anxious about this subject.
Adding a little extra time to complete tests and class work can make a big difference to an anxious student without impacting those without an issue. You can also replace calling on single students to answer a problem on the board by allowing pairs to work together and raise their hands to tell you an answer.
Make sure to pair students with math anxiety with someone who can help them rather than feed their fears.
Altering the class mindset when it comes to math can also prove effective. Reminding students that it’s okay to struggle and that learning something new (in any subject) is hard is important.
Shift that negative– “I’m bad at math”– attitude to one that revolves around math being a work in progress and restoring a productive mindset. It also doesn’t hurt to remind students that everyone learns differently and at a different pace.
Sometimes students inadvertently comparing themselves to others in the class can trigger math anxiety too.
Admitting math anxiety exists and moving forward
All strategies and studies aside, what’s imperative to do first is admit that math anxiety is a real issue many students face.
In order to address it, you need to get inside your student's head, find out what they’re afraid of, and then test out different strategies to help them overcome it.
It can take time, but ignoring it leaves that student open to a lifetime of potential repercussions that wouldn’t be there otherwise.
They won’t realize they have an issue, so it’s up to you to see it and offer what help you can.
Bottom line: Math does NOT have to be scary.