Math Anxiety in Children: How to Help Your Child Overcome It


Math Anxiety in Children: How to Help Your Child Overcome It

If math anxiety goes unnoticed, it can have long term effects on a child’s learning, and not only in math class. This post will help parents understand how it starts and learn strategies to help a child overcome it. Some parents might ask why it’s such a big deal. Mathematics is about more than numbers; it also helps build skills like critical thinking, problem solving, and underpins STEM learning. Math anxiety can affect a child’s overall confidence and academic performance in other subjects. A child who thinks they can’t do math is one thing, but a child who thinks they can’t problem solve, or who generalizes their math failures and thinks they are “not smart,” creates a larger problem. Let’s look at what math anxiety looks like, and ways parents can help their child.

What is Math Anxiety Anyway?    

Math anxiety is more than just worrying about one math test or saying, “I hate math.” Most often it’s a pattern of anxiety over math schoolwork, especially regarding tests and blackboard work. Also, it shows up repeatedly, even though a child seems to do pretty well with arithmetic, other math homework, and while studying.

What does math anxiety look like:

  • Children with fairly good math homework grades and who show comprehension in the classroom, but who don’t do well up at the board or on tests.
  • A child who gets most problems correct on their math homework but is routinely stressed about the subject.
  • A child who avoids math homework so parents must intervene to get the child to do it, but once they get to work, they do fine.
  • Kids who get most homework and math test problems right but who are anxious about and then do poorly on tests.
  • Kids who understand the subject when studying but want to stay home from school or go to the nurse feeling sick on math test day.

What is Dyscalculia and How to Tell it from Math Anxiety?

Dyscalculia isn’t a misspelling of a certain vampire’s name, but it is a learning challenge that can drain your child’s energy making it more difficult for some children to learn mathematical concepts. If you notice your child struggling across different types of math problems, and not understanding things at their grade level it might be something to consider. This learning issue can overlap with math anxiety.

Signs it might be dyscalculia rather than only math anxiety:

  • If your child takes a long time to do math homework and still gets many problems incorrect.
  • If he or she studies hard for math class and tests but continues to struggle with understanding the underlying concepts.
  • If this struggle extends across more than one branch or area of math learning.
  • If test scores and classroom work suffer as well as homework grades.

If these issues seem to be the core reason that your child is anxious about math, then it may be time to get tested for Dyscalculia.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

What are Some of the Causes of Math Anxiety?

Math anxiety can form in the classroom. Having to perform math problems under time pressure, especially at the board in front of the class, or on a test, can be a primary cause. And if a child was embarrassed in front of the whole class for getting a problem wrong or was shamed for getting a low grade by a teacher, these could be a starting point for this math phobia. Also, kids who are non-traditional learners may struggle to learn math by rote memorization and may need support with other teaching approaches. * A child dealing with dyscalculia may develop math anxiety too. A child who sees other kids their age doing well at math, while they struggle, can certainly lead to embarrassment and math issues.

Math anxiety can also form at home. Did you know if either of a child’s parents have math anxiety that you could pass it along to you child? Or that your attitudes around math, whether you are great or bad at it, may get picked up by your child who may emulate your feelings. If you aren’t good at math, or if it makes you anxious, try to shift how you talk about it around your kids using more positive language. Perhaps shift, “I stink at calculating the tip” and “I hate numbers,” to “let me use my calculator to check the tip or to check my math.”

If you’re good at math and your child struggles, also watch your language so it doesn’t add to your child’s worries. When you hear yourself say, “I don’t understand why you don’t get that,” or “math is so easy,” maybe shift out of frustration and into curiosity about your child’s struggles. Even for kids who are good at math, supportive language may be better than pushing for very high achievement. If they do fail a test, parental pressure can lead to anxiety to do better, such that they are unable to perform well on future tests.

Kids can assume a problem with one type of math means they can never improve. Not understanding one type of math can make a child anxious and want to avoid all math. Or make a child think that they are bad at all math. Children may not realize that being bad at fractions doesn’t necessarily make them bad at number sense or math facts. Parents may need to help children realize that if they get help understanding one type of math, other math will be easier.

Why does math anxiety matter?

Math is more than just numbers and equations; it provides essential skills and knowledge… from laying a foundation for critical thinking and problem-solving skills to improving deductive reasoning and logical thinking. In addition to numeracy skills, mathematics also assists children with:

  • Improving Communication and Language Skills
  • Fostering Spatial Awareness
  • Building a Foundation for STEM Education & Careers

Math anxiety can have a significant impact on a child’s academic performance and overall confidence.

How can Parents Help Unravel Math Anxiety?

By understanding the causes and symptoms of math anxiety, and exploring support, parents can play a vital role in helping their child develop a positive attitude towards math.

Look for the signs early on. If a child struggles with the building blocks of math in preschool or early elementary school, and starts to avoid math learning, consider talking with teachers. Try to rule out Dyscalculia and engage with the school support systems. At home, perhaps try math games from counting Cheerios at breakfast to actual math games; make it fun and positive rather than stressful. Again, watching parental language is an important factor.

As kids get older, encourage open communication about math classes. Watch for a shift in math attitudes. If a child was doing well then starts to struggle and stress out, this can be a sign that math anxiety is forming. Try to get a handle on worries early, as left uncovered, it can take months to untangle. Help your child celebrate small wins and progress. This can help build confidence and pull focus and worry away from tests and grades. Help children understand that struggling with this problem, or this type of math, doesn’t mean they are bad at all math. Again, focus on progress as it is made. Teaching the concept of having a growth mindset and embracing challenges can be helpful. This can mean reminding a child of a non-math learning challenge he or she was able to overcome and help them apply that confidence-building to math. Promoting positive self-talk and reframing negative thoughts are also a part of cultivating a growth mindset. What also can parents do?

  • Encourage perseverance and problem-solving skills
  • Communicate and collaborate with teachers about your child’s math anxiety
  • Encourage extracurricular activities that boost confidence and self-esteem

Identifying Areas of Weakness and Providing Additional Support

Work with teachers to identify areas of difficulty and talk with them to see if math anxiety or dyscalculia could be the issue. Consider engaging a tutor or signing a child up for a program like those ALOHA Mind Math holds, click link for info. Our trained teachers and methods recognize that children learn in different ways. Our small group format teaches various methods that make math less intimidating, more engaging, and helps build confidence. We consider a child’s classroom curriculum needs too. Also, our classes get children out of their normal classroom, where math anxiety issues may have started. We offer math programs for ages 3-12, so no matter the age, ALOHA can help.

Written by Cathy Larkin, a freelance writer and social media coordinator, who has been a part of the ALOHA Mind Math team for several years.

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