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Math Anxiety: Making the Subject Not So Scary

For millions of schoolchildren, there exists no boogeyman more sinister than math. When it comes to this subject, there’s some kind of built-in intimidation that can follow a young person from kindergarten to college. While it’s natural for students to excel and struggle with different competencies, math fear seems to be the most common form of academic anxiety.

This apprehension produces a dangerous ripple effect. What happens when math anxiety mutates into a fear of learning itself? That’s the tough question that shows why it’s so imperative to squash the lack of self-confidence in this subject area.

So how do educators erase the intimidation inherent with math disciplines? It’s all a matter of discovering why the trepidation exists, using proven strategies to alleviate anxiety, leveraging gamification techniques, and establishing an early passion and respect for the subject.

Why Is Math So Intimidating?

A study from Number Dyslexia confirms that half of adults experience some form of math anxiety. When you pivot that spotlight to young people, with all the heightened emotions inherent with that stage of life, imagine how much that stress intensifies.

In order to topple this adversary, teachers must first understand its nature. Engineer and math expert Manpreet Singh paints a most accurate portrait of what happens when so many schoolchildren feel apprehensive about the discipline:

“Kids can get anxious before they even begin kindergarten. Mentors and instructors may observe such uneasiness in early schools. Probably the alarming thing is it builds on itself when kids perform substandard in math or avoid learning new things because of their fear. If you’re frequently nervous or upset when doing math, it may soon [constrain] your ability to perform.”

Singh is 100% right about the urgency, we think. To combat this situation, we wholeheartedly believe the origin of math anxiety comes from two factors:

  • Self-prescribed failure: Perhaps this stems from a false family legacy that states if a student’s brother, father, or second cousin performed poorly on math assessments, then that fate awaits them as well. Or maybe, due to the biological or socioeconomic circumstances of their birth, children enter the classroom under the assumption that they are inherently awful at math.
  • The false indication of past performance: Failure is perhaps the most integral part of the scientific method. Every scientist, architect, engineer, and chemist has tried a method that produced less-than-stellar results. When it comes to test scores, one lower letter grade sometimes extinguishes a student’s hope for improvement. It’s an equal measure of low confidence and an untrue belief that one assessment impacts all the others that follow.

How to Help Kids with Math Anxiety

One study from the Child Mind Institute explores how the education world consistently espouses the vital nature of math, positioning its mastery as a pathway to a profitable and fulfilling career. Of course, no one disagrees with that. The problem is, our society divides kids into diametric camps of virtuosos and failures.

Kids pick up on that binary destiny. No doubt, these proclamations create math anxiety. But educators can help alleviate the distress. Beyond mnemonic devices and cute visuals (the alligator eating a larger number, for example), these overarching strategies will help reposition math as a more approachable study.

  • Praise hard work over test results. Look, kids deal with so much pressure to score well on tests. Many of them measure their self-worth through the number that appears at the top of their assessments. But what if we placed less emphasis on letter grades and percentile ranges? What if, as educators, we positioned hard work and perseverance over a number that often proves arbitrary once kids leave school? Imagine the possibilities of the new reality this attitude would create.
  • Position failure as an essential element of discovery. Failure is so important in school. And we’re not talking about life lessons about how not every kid can be the best at everything. As educators, we believe failure is a most vital component of the learning process. Without the occasional flounder, how do we know how to improve? How do we grow academically?
  • Use visual elements. The most common of the four learning types, visual information provides the perfect translation of numbers. Whether it’s counting apples in the elementary classroom or using bathwater to explain volume in high school, visual comparisons help kids absorb, understand, and retain crucial information.
  • Use words instead of numbers. So many of us who work in education have come to an understanding that we fall into one of two camps: ELA people or math people. In many instances, there is perhaps an inkling of truth to that statement. But there is no question that many (not all) kids prefer a verbal approach to learning. When you leverage words in your math lessons, students can illustrate how to solve a problem step-by-step with a learning language that makes them feel at ease.
  • Gamify your math lessons. Ah, those trusty Chromebooks. If your classroom comes equipped with them, then you have a golden opportunity to turn computer games into math lessons. Of course, we are more than aware that not every teacher and school receives the same amount of funding. Ergo, we’ve curated a list of inexpensive gamification tools that you can use to increase math fluency.

Use PD to Alleviate Math Anxiety

Looking for more strategies to instill a lifelong love of math in your students? Check out these professional development courses from Advancement Courses:

  • Strategies for Addressing Student Anxiety: Classroom anxiety is normal, and students will likely look toward their teachers for guidance. This course will give you a direction to help manage student anxiety.
  • Strategies for Developing an Engaging and Effective Secondary Math Curriculum: Get tools to strengthen your math instruction! Learn to integrate hands-on, real-world activities that highlight critical thinking skills, address different learning styles, build authentic understanding, and differentiate instruction.
  • Tech Tools for the Math Classroom: Explore mathematical concepts through technology! You’ll learn how to differentiate instruction, encourage authentic understanding and assessment, and choose the best resources for different learning styles, gifted learners, and students with special needs.
  • Fostering Mathematical Mindsets: Banish math anxiety for good! Create a learning environment that encourages students to access their natural mathematical abilities and recognize the math that exists all around them. Learn to help students develop authentic number sense and nurture a sincere enthusiasm for math.
  • Real-World Applications for Algebra: Bring project-based learning to your math class to show your students why algebra matters in the real world. This course provides a foundation in basic algebraic principles, including equations, functions, and mathematical models, with emphasis on application in the business world.

In addition to these, Advancement Courses offers more than 280 online, self-paced PD courses covering both foundational topics and emerging trends in K–12 education. Courses are available for both graduate and continuing education credit for your salary advancement or recertification needs.

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