The thought of a math test can make even the most confident student stressed out, but for some, the feelings associated with math go far beyond garden-variety stress. For these students, a feeling of intense anxiety develops to the point where they are no longer able to think clearly. Are these emotions a real problem or just an excuse to avoid an uncomfortable academic subject?
Dr. Sian Beilock, author of Choke, a 2010 book on brain responses, says that, "People are very happy to say that they don't like math, but no one walks around bragging that they can't read. It's perfectly socially acceptable to say you don't like math."
The Latest Research
Studies show that when students solve math problems, they first process information through the amygdala, the brain's emotion center. Within a millisecond, another section of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, takes over allowing the student to juggle data and think critically. In highly anxious students, the amygdala is far too active, leaving the pre-frontal cortex underutilized.
What Causes Such Stress Over Math?
Is this reaction learned or biological? The answer is two-fold. First, brain scans reveal that young children who are quick and accurate show a very low level of stress. Those who are slow and less accurate demonstrate a high level of stress in the brain. These early difficulties, even when minor in nature, cause frustration and difficulty later on.
It is also true that math anxiety can be a learned behavior. Dr. Beilock found first and second grade female teachers unconsciously passed on their negative attitudes about math to their female students (males did not seem to be affected). This trend doesn't just exist in classrooms. Parents can also pass down their own negative perceptions to their children, both male and female.
What to Do If Your Child Experiences Math Anxiety
It is important to recognize that the problem will not go away by encouraging your child to "try harder" or "stop worrying". Instead, use the following strategies:
Don't Let It Slide
Math is the sole subject that is nearly 100% cumulative. Students must have a strong foundation or they will fall behind, lose confidence, and grow to dislike the subject. When you see your child struggling, intervene right away by assisting with homework. You may find that the older your child gets, the less willing he is to work with you. Seek after-school help from the teacher or hire a tutor who can patiently break down concepts, fill in any gaps, and instill confidence.
Watch Your Words
Even if math was difficult for you as a child, don't harp on your shortcomings by saying, "I was terrible at math, too. It must run in the family." Instead, focus on what can be changed. The truth is that with practice, your child can overcome his or her weakness in math. Adopt the mantra "practice makes permanent", not "practice makes perfect". With enough reinforcement, your child will be able to remember the important steps to solving problems.
Do Not Push Advanced Classes
The trend these days is for students to take advanced math classes early on, beginning with Algebra in 7th or 8th grade. This approach is a good one for many students but not for all. Those experiencing significant math anxieties may be further stymied because they feel overwhelmed and underprepared. Although your child may be capable of keeping up, don't force advanced classes if he or she is not quite ready.
Beware of Test Anxiety
Sometimes test anxiety in any subject increases when students sit down to take a test knowing they are not fully prepared. The old adage "You can't study for math" is simply not true. The best way for a student to prepare is to make a practice test and solve the problems as if it is the real exam. This allows the student to know which problems he cannot solve and to practice accordingly. In many instances, proper preparation decreases stress on test day.
Use the Summer
Although it may be tempting for you and your child to take a break from math over the summer, studies show that this is not a good idea. The summer is the perfect time to review the skills that are troublesome and to preview what lies ahead in the coming school year. This ensures that your child will get off on the right foot in the fall.
Whether negative feelings towards math are biologically rooted or learned, it's never too late to help your child turn the corner to success.
Ann K. Dolin, MEd, is the founder and president of Educational Connections, Inc., a comprehensive provider of educational services in Fairfax, VA and Bethesda, MD. In her award-winning book, Homework Made Simple: Tips, Tools and Solutions for Stress-Free Homework, Dolin offers proven solutions to help the six key types of students who struggle with homework.