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How to Reduce Math Anxiety

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The alarm sounds, telling you it’s time to get up and greet the day, but as you slowly wake from your slumber and wipe the sleep away from your eyes, a familiar feeling of dread rushes through you in an overwhelming wave. It’s test day and even though you have studied for hours and scored pretty well on various practice exams and homework assignments, doubt continues to creep within you as you begin to question whether or not you’re really ready for algebra.

Math Anxiety is defined as “the panic, helplessness, paralysis, and mental disorganization that arises among some people when they are required to solve a mathematical problem.”

A common phenomena that affects many of us at various levels, math anxiety is related to performance anxiety and is likely to extend far outside of the classroom if not recognized and proactively managed. People who suffer from excess math anxiety may feel stress around numbers well into adulthood, negatively impacting their professional and personal lives. They may avoid applying for jobs that involve working with numbers, dread balancing their budget, or feel nervous while performing regular tasks that require mathematics such as leaving a tip.

For many students, the thought of returning back to school over summer break causes a great deal of stress. Not only is summer over, but the fear that comes from past math failure looms over them, casting a dark shadow on what should be an exciting time. Due to the alarming impact of the summer slide in mathematics and growing math achievement gap between high and low-income students, many of their fears may unfortunately become a reality, tossing some students into a viscous cycle of math avoidance, poor preparation, and further math failures.

So, what is it about math that makes students more anxious than any other subject?

Much of the anxiety surrounding math comes directly from classrooms that fail to establish a growth mindset, one with emphasis on effort and understanding concepts instead of focusing solely on test scores and right answers. Research suggests that the pressure of high-stakes, timed tests and the risk of public embarrassment are some of the major sources of stress among math students. As many schools make the switch from a traditional fixed mindset to one of growth, students across the country are learning to love math for the first time.

Teachers benefit children most when they encourage them to share their thinking process and justify their answers out loud or in writing as they perform math operations… With less of an emphasis on right or wrong and more of an emphasis on process, teachers can help alleviate students’ anxiety about math.

Teachers who implement a growth mindset classroom environment can reduce math anxiety by addressing incorrect answers in a positive manner, letting students know that mistakes are okay, and rewarding individual effort instead of praising only math achievement. By encouraging student participation through student-directed classes and discussion, students are able to make the important transition from passive to active learners and have been shown to be more receptive of new material. By incorporating low risk / high reward activities into lesson plans, such a games and supplemental math programs, learning will come naturally as students feel more at ease.

As stated in a recent Childhood Education article by Joseph Furner and Barbara Berman on the topic of math anxiety, “Teachers benefit children most when they encourage them to share their thinking process and justify their answers out loud or in writing as they perform math operations… With less of an emphasis on right or wrong and more of an emphasis on process, teachers can help alleviate students’ anxiety about math.”

Math Anxiety is Contagious

Parents should also be aware of their own anxiety toward mathematics, especially while helping children with homework or test prep, as negative associations with math have been found to transfer from one person to another, resulting in math avoidance and increased anxiousness.

In a 2015 study by the University of Chicago’s Department of Psychology titled, “Intergenerational Effects of Parents’ Math Anxiety on Children’s Math Achievement and Anxiety,” researchers studied children in the first and second grade and explored how their parents’ anxiety towards mathematics related to their own math achievement. “We found that when parents are more math-anxious, their children learn significantly less math over the school year and have more math anxiety by the school year’s end — but only if math-anxious parents report providing frequent help with math homework.”

When helping a child understand a mathematical concept, it’s important to stay positive and relaxed. If they see a parent or mentor give into their own frustration or math apprehension, they will likely follow suit and form similar negative associations with mathematics. Access to live teachers at home is a great resource many parents find helpful for reducing and preventing math anxiety. Schools that have implemented math remediation tools with at-home live teacher support have seen less math-anxious students as well as parents.

A recent childhood psychology study by the University of Pittsburgh supports this idea, indicating that a parent’s math anxiety may unintentionally ‘rub off’ on their children. We had the pleasure of sitting down with Melissa E. Libertus, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and a research scientist in the University’s Learning Research and Development Center and Kids’ Thinking Lab (Kitlab). The focus of Dr. Libertus’ research is on understanding the way children perceive and learn mathematical concepts with the goal of identifying key factors that lead to math achievement. Her work is shedding new light on the way children learn math and the profound impact of early influences by parents, teachers, and other mentors.

TTM: Do you have any advice for parents struggling to help their children with math?

Dr. Libertus: All children are born with an intuition for numbers and a natural curiosity to learn about math. Unfortunately, sometimes this curiosity is lost when it is not nurtured, when children struggle with math, or when math is portrayed as difficult and something that only comes naturally to certain people. Parents (and teachers) can help children maintain and regain their interest by connecting math with children’s intuitions. For example, children may have an inherent interest in figuring out division when they are trying to share cookies fairly with their friends. Having children try out division and then looking at the results of their attempts to determine whether they got it right builds on their intuitions and reinforces the idea that math is useful in everyday life.

TTM: What can parents do to introduce children to math at a young age? How does it prepare them for the future?

Dr. Libertus: When parents (and teachers) talk about numbers and math whenever they encounter them in their everyday interactions with their children, children learn to see math everywhere. For example, while grocery shopping parents can talk about how much different items cost, weigh produce with the child, and figure out how much change they are supposed to get. When driving around, one can count the number of red cars, talk about speed limits, distances, numbers on signs, and how long it takes to get from one place to another. At home or at school, playing board games that require the use of a dice or playing with blocks and puzzles have also shown to help build children’s math skills. Math skills develop before children start kindergarten and there are many ways in which we can and need to foster them.

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Proven Ways to Reduce Anxiety

Before, during, and after a stressful event, such as a math test, it’s important to keep your mind clear and bring the best version of yourself forward. This will help to not only prepare you from overreacting to external causes of stress, but will keep you focused on achieving the best results on the task at hand. Students can reduce the impact of math anxiety by implementing various forms of stress prevention tools, from creating a test-taking strategy – such as learning to simply move onto the next problem if they get stuck – to entering a state of calm relaxation using various breathing techniques and meditation.

Here are some proven ways of preventing and reducing stress.

Shake it Off: Physical activity is arguably the best way to remove stress from the body. Prior to a stressful event, hit the gym, stretch, or go for a brisk walk.

Fists of Fury: Tightly squeeze your hands into fists and hold for several seconds, then release and visualize all your stress floating away. This works particularly well if you have a stress ball, like one of our TTM brains as shown below.

Power Posing: Our body language has a tremendous impact on the body’s chemistry and is directly linked to the way we handle stress. Amy Cuddy, the social psychologist who introduced the world to this idea during a recent Ted Talk, found an incredible link between posture and stress. Simply by standing up straight and making yourself big as in the “Wonder Woman” pose, your body will lower the production of cortisol (the stress hormone) while increasing testosterone, effectively improving your ability to handle stress. Cuddy suggests standing tall with your arms extended outward for several minutes prior to entering a stressful environment.

Count to Ten: One of the most ancient forms of stress reduction is the art of focusing all attention on breathing, while letting go of everything else. A calm state of deep relaxation and mental clarity can be achieved through various breathing techniques and postures. These methods have been used for thousands of years and are more important than ever in today’s busy world.

Reduce Math Anxiety During a Test: Sitting in a comfortable position with your spine straightened and feet flat on the floor, close your eyes and breath in deeply through your nose, expanding your belly along with your chest and then slowly exhaling. Bring your attention to your breath and visualize positive energy moving in and all negativity or anxiety releasing from your body on exhale. Repeat this process for at least ten full breaths or more until you feel your body relax and you’re ready to tackle the next problem.

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