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Is math anxiety real? When your child or student comes home and says, “I don’t like math” or, “I can’t do math,” are they honestly having trouble with the material or looking for an excuse to avoid the work?

According to decades of research, math anxiety is real. An estimated 17 percent of American students have some form of math anxiety. More formally, we often define mathematics anxiety as the stress of learning and participating in the mathematics classroom or situations that require math. It is seen as a kind of fear of failure, threat to self-esteem, or discomfort that disrupts cognitive processing by compromising ongoing activity in working memory.

How does this anxiety manifest itself? Your child may tell you about any of the following types of symptoms: dry mouth, panic, fear, uneasiness, heart palpitations, nausea, sweaty hands or feet, muscle tension, shortness of breath, inability to be still and calm. For some students this anxiety can feel like a heart attack. The physical feelings are real.

Parents and teachers unwittingly nurture math anxiety by sending mixed or even negative messages about math: for example, it’s something to fear; or it should be done quickly, i.e., true math proficiency can be measured by timed tests.

Fostering a Growth Mindset

Why I am interested in the topic? I suffered from math anxiety that started in second grade. I could recall and use algorithms and had a good number sense. I just could not work quickly. I was afraid of making mistakes. Timed tests in second grade seemed to teach me that I was dumb. I started to lose interest in math and in school. What I know now is that not being able to compute quickly doesn’t mean you have a math disability.

Many mathematicians cannot compute quickly; in fact, it is common for mathematicians to be slow, deep thinkers. Some professors and research scientists even have dyscalculia, a learning disability that makes comprehension difficult. Understanding numbers, learning how to manipulate them, and learning facts in mathematics are all difficult for someone with dyscalculia.

The point is, we need to stop equating fast with good. Calculations and computing have high demands on working memory. Students need to hear messages about “growth mindset”—how the brain can grow more from mistakes than getting it all right. The opposite is a “fixed mindset”—the idea that getting it wrong means a student is “dumb” or incapable of doing the material. Mistakes, or going slowly to figure things out, do not equal “dumb.”

Parents and teachers should instead encourage students to take risks and learn from mistakes. We all need to create spaces to tackle problems, make mistakes, and learn. The courage to take risks and make mistakes is very powerful and results in greater success than if a student is innately brilliant in math.

Beating Math Anxiety

How do we, as parents or teachers, conquer math anxiety in our children and students? We should be telling them the truth: anyone can do math!

Sian Beilock, Ph.D., is a research scientist (and currently president of Barnard College) who has extensively studied anxiety. Here are some of my favorite techniques from Beilock’s book, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting It Right When You Have To, and some of my suggestions about how parents can help a child reframe the experience of math anxiety.

  • Practice under mild pressure—Study under the same conditions as the event. Is it timed? Do you get a “cheat” sheet?
  • Outsource your cognitive load—Sometimes we need help in making it through steps. Write down steps as you go instead of trying to remember them.
  • Reinterpret your reactions—This reframing technique helps you identify that the sweaty palms, heart palpitations, etc. are not all bad. You get similar feelings when you meet a cute new person. We probably all have some of those symptoms when we go to our favorite performance.
  • Organize your knowledge—organize what you do know in a way that makes sense to you. For example, I always park in the same row at the grocery store. Take a burden off working memory by using and practicing with your organization scheme.
  • Pause your “choke”—walk away for a few minutes from a challenging task. If you have ever struggled on a math problem, you know your brain can get stuck seeing the problem in the same way. Either mentally or physically walking away can help the brain let go and come back fresh for the challenge.

Math is everywhere, and every student deserves a chance to learn it. Parents and teachers need to acknowledge that students from many levels of math can and do experience math anxiety. Identifying the problem is the first step to helping students reframe their anxiety and gain the courage to doing math—at any age.

Michelle L.W. Bower, Ph.D., is professor of mathematics at Landmark College in Vermont, the first college exclusively for students with learning disabilities (including dyslexia and dyscalculia), ADHD, ASD, and executive function challenges.