Why Are Your Kids Afraid of Math? (and what to do about it)

Oct 8, 2022 | Columbia

Do you cringe a tiny bit whenever someone asks you to tally your score at the end of a Yahtzee game? Are you secretly relieved whenever your check comes with the tip already calculated for you at the bottom of the receipt? When your child asks for help with their math homework, do you mentally run through a list of other people in the house who might be more qualified for the task? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may suffer from some degree of math anxiety - and it’s possible that your kids do too.

Math anxiety, also called math phobia, may be a feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear about one’s ability to do mathematics. Just like every person feels at least a little nervous about speaking in front of an audience, we all experience math anxiety to some degree. The problems arise when this anxiety starts to negatively affect one’s math performance.

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Math anxiety, when unchecked, can turn into a vicious cycle. Studies at the Mangels Lab of Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory and Attention at Baruch College at the City University of New York found that when math is taught in an environment where students do not feel successful, this can lead to significant math anxiety which inhibits math performance [1]. In turn, the resulting bad grades reinforce the belief that the student should feel anxious about their math ability, which continues to negatively impact their performance.

While it’s hard to know when exactly a student starts to develop math anxiety, researchers believe that many students develop this emotional response based on certain kinds of social interactions that influence their thoughts [2]. A parent or teacher who has math anxiety is likely to pass these feelings on to their students. In the U.S., many consider it normal and acceptable to struggle with math, in a way that struggling with other topics (such as reading and writing) is not.

So what do we do about it?The first step to handling math anxiety is to recognize that it is an emotional response and, like with any strong emotional reaction, there are constructive ways to manage it [3]. It’s important to accept the feeling and understand why it exists in the first place. Researchers have found that children who take time to write about their thoughts and feelings surrounding math anxiety before their upcoming math test often perform better on the test [2]. Creating a positive environment where children can feel confident about their math abilities is also important. Finally, take some time to consider your own mathematical worries as well. When your child sees you tackling your math problems, they’ll feel better about approaching their own!


Math Shouldn’t Be Scary

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[1] Parrish, Nina. “Why Are So Many Students Afraid of Math?” Edutopia, 2017
[2] Sokolowski, H. Moriah & Ansari, Daniel. “Who Is Afraid of Math? What Is Math Anxiety? And What Can You Do about It?” Frontiers, 2017
[3] Smith, Wendy Hageman & Smith, Sidney. “Coping with Math Anxiety” Platonic Realms, 2014

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