Last year we met a 7-year-old girl we’ll call Zoey. A shy second grader who excelled at reading, Zoey’s parents and teachers were concerned about Zoey’s poor performance in math and her reluctance to do her math homework. What intrigued us was a passing comment mom made during the intake interview: Zoey frequently complained of stomachaches during school, landing her in the nurse’s office almost daily. The nurse could never find a reason for Zoey’s pains, and after a quick check-up would send a happy Zoey back to class.
What the teachers and nurse missed was that Zoey’s pains were getting her out of math class; nobody at the school considered Zoey might be experiencing math anxiety.
Common wisdom is that math anxiety doesn’t affect children before sixth grade. On the contrary, our research demonstrates that children as young as first grade report math anxiety symptoms. Worse, this math anxiety affects their ability to learn math. Sadly, Zoey’s story isn’t unique.
Math anxiety refers to feelings of tension and fear that interfere with solving mathematical problems in everyday life and school settings. Math anxiety involves physiological arousal (e.g., sweaty palms, racing heart), negative thoughts (e.g., “I am just not a math person.”), escape and/or avoidance behaviors (e.g., developing pains to get out of math class), and, when the individual cannot escape the situation, poor performance. Sound like Zoey? Yes, and between 66-90% of Americans, some reports say.
The negative impacts of math anxiety are enormous. Math-anxious students do not see the value of math for everyday life, they participate — and learn — less in math classes, receive lower grades in math, and take fewer math classes in high school and college. These patterns are especially troubling given that mathematical proficiency is becoming increasingly important for full economic opportunity and meaningful participation in society. Consider that only one-third of high school seniors in the U.S. have the mathematical proficiency to compete in a global market and respond to global challenges.
Where are we going wrong?
There are lots of different pathways to math anxiety. A growing body of research suggests that parents and teachers might transmit their own math anxiety to children. At home, comments such as, “I was a terrible math student, it’s in our genes” send the signal that it isn’t important to do well in math. In the classroom, math anxiety has been linked to teachers who are hostile, hold gender biases, are indifferent, or who embarrass students in front of peers.
More important, in our opinion, is the role we collectively play as a society. Let’s face it: it is socially acceptable to say you are bad at math whereas there is a social stigma attached to having poor literacy skills. Kids are consistently bombarded with messages that math is something to fear. T-shirts proudly announce, “Allergic to Algebra” or “I’m too pretty for math.” Even Barbie had something to say about math being tough. This is simply not okay. There is no reason kids should be any more anxious about math than other academic subjects.
So what do we do about math anxiety? First and foremost we have got to stop sending messages to our young children — especially our girls — that math is something to fear. Humans are actually hardwired to think mathematically; we are born with basic building blocks to do math. We need stronger teacher preparation programs that focus on building mathematically competent and confident teachers. We need to provide better supports to our teachers and school leaders to prevent and reduce math anxiety from taking root. We also need to better integrate math into every day routines. Just as we encourage teachers and parents to read with kids, math activities need to become daily habits. Board games, playing cards, and dominoes all have potential for enhancing mathematical thinking.
What do we do about kids who already have math anxiety? Children (and adults!) first need to recognize the signs of math anxiety: the sweaty palms, the racing heart, the negative thoughts. Then, kids need techniques to conquer their anxiety in real-time.
Common strategies include relaxation techniques (e.g., breathing exercises or guided imagery) and positive self-talk (e.g., “I can do math.” “I can take my time and find the correct answer.”)
A special note to teachers: Remember that kids with math anxiety — like all struggling math learners — are going to need lots of reassurance and more time and support than their peers to develop good math habits, skills, and strategies. Be patient! With the right supports and attitudes, we can teach our children to love and excel at math. We all have a role to play in turning math into the one four-letter word children use loudly and proudly.