Updated: Feb 24
Children are born curious - they’re born taking risks, find joy in making mistakes, and are amused by productive struggle. Yet, somewhere down the road, possibly because of our reactions, their expectations, and comparisons, this flame of curiosity and joy of learning sometimes fades. Unfortunately, we see this happen a lot with math.
Math anxiety is real. It’s heartbreaking to see students have a strong distaste for math, avoid it or become intensely overwhelmed by it. Because our teachers are pressured to move quickly, our kiddos don’t build a strong foundation which handicaps their number sense and reasoning and leaves them to do guesswork. As a result, their math experience is confusing, and they resort to memorizing, following math rules, and learning quick “tricks.” As the math concepts get more complex and the problems progress to multistep equations, students who have skidded through math class by memorization have a more challenging time keeping up with the demands and get overwhelmed, stressed, and anxious.
When they’re anxious or have big feelings, no learning is happening, and their anxiety is exasperated! Hence, the thinking part of the brain shrinks, and the stress chemicals fire, which disrupts their memory, and capacity to process and reason; the problem-solving part of the brain shuts down, and they are incapable of accessing their skills.
The fear of math is common; researchers believe one-third of students have some degree of math anxiety when completing a timed test, and in 2012 a study found 30% of high school students felt “helpless” when doing math. Our feelings are contagious; this includes stress, anxiety, and calm. If the person teaching math is anxious, they transmit that anxiety to the learner and, as a result, impairs their achievement. These stress-inducing moments deter students away from math. So, what are some early signs to recognize?
Signs to Spot:
The child has no “feel” for numbers- has difficulty estimating, composing and decomposing numbers, chunking and manipulating numbers, and understanding the magnitude of numbers.
Difficulty with visual-spatial skills - makes it harder to use strategies that involve number lines, and understanding of part-whole relationships, cardinality, and spatial relationships
Memory problems- short and long-term memory weaknesses affect retrieval, mental calculations, maintaining and manipulating information, and carrying out multisteps.
Do not give meaning to operational signs- guess their strategy- should I add, subtract, multiply or divide?
Challenges in subitizing- recognize the quantity without counting i.e., quickly identify the quantity on a dice.
Struggle to notice patterns - they do not understand the relationship between numbers or concepts and struggle to make predictions, generalize, and organize information .
Difficulty retrieving facts- tough time remembering multiplication and division facts
Sequencing- especially when it comes to multistep problems and understanding the progression and order of numbers.
To foster a mathematical mindset, students need to understand the math conceptually; they need to interpret the “why” to understand, reason, recognize patterns and relationships, and see math as a flexible conceptual subject. Automaticity is reached by understanding relationships and number strategies- not memorizing! Memorization and drill practices only create damaging pathways in the brain of formal procedures; we need to foster strong number sense and flexible thinking. One way of developing strong number sense is to teach students to recognize strategies by “touching” and “seeing” the math. Rather than memorizing the facts, students need strategies to build the math. For example, 8x4 can be solved by working out 8x2 and then doubling the product. Cultivating a strong number sense develops a mathematical mindset and sets the foundation for higher-level mathematics. Also, because the best learning occurs when the left and right sides of the brain communicate, math should be taught multimodally; the left side handles factual information, and the right side is in charge of visual and spatial relationships. When we engage multiple senses, our brain fires more connections, and the learning is compressed.
The difference between low and high-achieving math students is their ability to think of numbers flexibly, recognize numerical relationships, reason, and understand strategies; students need to spend time in the early years playing with manipulatives to learn to chunk, partition, join, and recombine amounts. In addition, students need to think deeply about how ideas relate to one another and give meaning to the numbers, operational signs, and strategies to organize their learning.
Math is a building block- each new concept builds on previous knowledge. Conceptual understanding of math takes time, yet the payoff is worth it! Give students ample time to practice- repetition is key! Progression needs to move in the tiniest of steps. If you don’t feel comfortable teaching math, find someone who does. The teacher’s strong confidence and excitement for math are transmitted to the learner. Look for early signs in the primary grades to sculpt a strong foundation.
It’s never too late to seek support. We can make math fun and reinstill a curious math mind. So let’s break the cycle and conquer the fear!
Jo Boaler. “Developing Mathematical Mindsets.” American Federation of Teachers, 10 Sept. 2020, https://www.aft.org/ae/winter2018-2019/boaler.
Turner, Anya Kamenetz and Cory. “Math Anxiety Is Real. Here's How to Help Your Child Avoid It - Mindshift.” KQED, 8 Sept. 2020, https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/56637/math-anxiety-is-real-heres-how-to-help-your-child-avoid-it.