Getting a grip on math anxiety

Having anxiety about it doesn’t mean your child cannot do math, tutoring expert says


ThreeKidsTwo months into math class and the panic has started. Math might seem daunting to many of us, but there might be a deeper reason your child hates it so much: it’s called math anxiety. Anxiety acts up most when faced with something we’re insecure about — and for many students (and parents!), math is that something.

Math anxiety is more than a dislike of math. It’s a lack of ability to do math, regardless of skill. A student suffering from math anxiety feels negative emotions when engaging in numerical tasks and there is science to back it up.

Sarah Sparks, a writer at Education Week, reported that simply suggesting math testing triggered a stress response in the hypothalamus of students with math anxiety.

Anxiety can cut off the working memory needed to solve problems, according to California-based neurologist, Dr. Judy Willis. The negative thought patterns associated with math anxiety actually take up the brain’s working memory, using brainpower to combat anxiety rather than to solve the problem at hand.

We aren’t necessarily born with a predisposition to math anxiety. It can develop for a variety of reasons, including comparisons of oneself with peers, poor instruction, a history of bad experiences with math, and cultural stereotypes surrounding mathematical ability.

BooksThere is a marked difference between math anxiety and not wanting to do one’s math homework. If your child has any of the following symptoms, you might have a reason to suspect math anxiety:

• Panic: A palpable feeling of helplessness when it comes to math.

• Paranoia: The belief that they are one of the few who simply don’t get it.

• Passive behaviour: The acceptance that they will never understand math and that there is nothing they can do about it.

• Lack of confidence: The tendency to second-guess all work, all of the time.

Think your child might be math anxious? Don’t worry, as with most math problems, there are solutions.

For starters, Jan Hoffman of the New York Times believes that parents’ attitudes toward math are pivotal. Not all of us are math lovers, and you don’t have to pretend you’re a math genius. Just be encouraging, hopeful and, whatever you do, stay calm.

Get your child extra support. Check in with your child’s school to see if they have a peer tutoring program. And don’t underestimate the difference that a professional tutor can make. Check out Yelp online to find someone in your area.

Often kids feel a great deal of anxiety surrounding math because it isn’t something that comes naturally. Show your child that success in their favourite extra-curriculars doesn’t come without a ton of practice, and the same is true of math.

Math anxiety thrives on insecurity. Instil confidence in your child by getting excited when they get they understand concepts, and praise their hard work — not their good grades.

Vanessa Vakharia is founder and director of The Math Guru, a boutique math and science tutoring studio in Toronto. She has her Masters of Math Education and specializes on teenage engagement in mathematics education. Website: Social media: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter & Snapchat: @themathguru.

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Posted: Oct 28 2015 12:30 pm
Filed in: Education
Edition: Toronto