Dealing with Math Anxiety

By Eve Kessler, Esq.


For kids with diagnosed dyscalculia math anxiety is a common problem, but even students without the disability can become anxious and fearful when doing math in school • Parents can help their child manage the anxiety by building the skills their child needs to succeed in math

Math anxiety occurs when doing math activates the brain regions associated with fear and coping with negative emotions. The anxiety consumes a child’s ability to process information, as well as her working memory resources, and leads to poor performance.

Math anxiety is quite prevalent among students: a child worries that math class will be difficult; gets especially nervous when doing math problems in class; becomes particularly tense when doing math homework; feels helpless when doing math problems; and worries about getting poor math grades or failing the class.

It is unclear if poor math performance leads to math anxiety or if math anxiety leads to poor performance.

Fear of math impacts a child’s math performance dramatically and is an indisputable problem.

Math anxiety can impact anyone, regardless of age, which is why, when working with kids, teachers and parents need to be aware of their own feelings about math. A teacher’s math anxiety may contribute to a child’s math anxiety, causing the child to become a math underachiever. A parent’s math anxiety also matters. Research indicates that when parents with math anxiety help with math homework, their children’s scores tend to decline.

Managing Math Anxiety

A number of ways have been shown to counter the negative effects of math anxiety. Certain expressive writing exercises appear to protect against the negative effects of math anxiety. For example, when kids are given the opportunity to reflect on their anxiety, externalize their fears, and explore their emotions and thoughts as they prepare for a test, they do better.

Building math skills can also help. Deficits in core competencies lead to difficulties in acquiring higher-level skills and feed performance-related math fears.

Following are 5 strategies to help develop math skills:

  1. Make math part of your child’s daily routine. Numbers are a part of everyday life, from being on time to shopping, following a recipe, setting the table and creating a budget. Help your child strengthen her sense of numbers by talking about quantities and relationships (“How many houses do you see?” “How much time is left before we have to leave?”). Discuss how much time a task takes, the cost of various things, the amount of change she’ll get back at the store, how many juice boxes to buy for a week of lunches, and the number of forks needed to set the table for six.
  2. Develop time management skills. If your child struggles with time-management (e.g., recognizing how much time has passed or when she should move on to the next activity) implement strategies to help her improve her sense of time. These include using cell-phone reminders, visual timers, and calendars. Even incorporating a 5-minute break after 20 minutes of homework raises awareness about time.
  3. Play math games. Kids benefit from a hands-on, multi-sensory approach to learning math skills. Make it fun to learn by playing board games that include counting and simple math. Many games use physical materials, such as marbles, dominoes, cards, or dice. Break the objects into sets; grouping and regrouping them helps your child see numbers in workable ways. Work on symbolic and non-symbolic comparisons: contrast the numeral 5 with five marbles.
  4. Help with homework. If your child has trouble with multi-step math problems or word problems, help by getting her started. Explain the big picture and discuss the steps she will need to follow. Work on problems together until she fully understands and can internalize the steps and they become automatic. Reduce the amount of math she has to do in her head by letting her use a calculator.
  5. Stay positive, patient, and supportive. While math anxiety is not reserved for children with dyscalculia, kids with the disorder commonly experience it. If your child has dyscalculia, learn about it as well as your child’s strengths and challenges. Help your child understand what a developmental math disability is and how it impacts her. Remain calm and encouraging: even basic principles may be extremely difficult for her. Praise her effort; if she gets the wrong answer, lead her through the steps to the correct solution. The goal is for your child to feel confident that she can learn and be willing to grapple with new concepts; if she feels “stupid,” she will shut down and become unavailable for learning.

If your child has math deficits, building her skill set and getting the supports and strategies to compensate for her challenges, should go a long way toward putting her on the road to relieving her math anxiety.

This article is based on ADDitude Magazine’s expert webinar, Understanding Dyscalculia: How to Recognize & Address Math Learning Disabilities, given by Daniel Ansari, PhD; and articles about dyscalculia, by Devon Frye, in ADDitude Magazine. Eve Kessler, Esq., a criminal appellate attorney with The Legal Aid Society, NYC, is co-founder of the not-for-profit SPED*NET, Special Education Network of Wilton (CT) and a Contributing Editor for Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities.

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