If You Have Math Anxiety, This Can Help

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
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I’m just going to come out and say it: I hate math.

It’s more than hate, actually. Math gives me legit anxiety. I have nightmares about being in high stakes situations where I need to do math and I can’t even properly use a calculator. Having to add things up in my head makes me feel dizzy and abysmally incompetent.

It wasn’t always this way. I was a decent math student in the early years of elementary school. Even middle school was pretty okay. But once 10th grade math hit, I had no freaking clue what was going on. And then trigonometry came around the following year, and I was in danger of failing a class for the first time in my life. I ended up getting tutored by a friend, and I was ecstatic when I passed the final exam with a 65%.

Since that experience – which was totally panic-inducing for me – I have never felt the same about math. Even simple math gives me heart palpitations.

Math anxiety is a real thing. It impacts many of us, and usually an experience in childhood or during our schooling triggers it. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we are horrible at math, but that our anxiety makes us believe this to be the case, because anxiety sucks like that.

One of the things as I worried about as my kids started school was transferring some of that math anxiety onto my kids. I mean, if my kids know their mom basically has a panic attack when she reads a word problem she doesn’t understand, how are they supposed to feel at ease with the subject?

It turns out that my concerns were justifiable, unfortunately. A 2015 study from the University of Chicago found that parents can indeed pass their math anxiety onto their kids – and that kids of “math anxious parents” tend to struggle more frequently in math class.

“We often don’t think about how important parents’ own attitudes are in determining their children’s academic achievement. But our work suggests that if a parent is walking around saying ‘Oh, I don’t like math’ or ‘This stuff makes me nervous,’ kids pick up on this messaging and it affects their success,” explained Sian Beilock, one of the researcher of the study.

Yikes. If that’s not enough to make your already math-stressed-self STRESSED AF, I don’t know what is.

However, there is good news for us math-compromised parents. A brand new study conducted by Sian Beilock and others found that a few simple attitude changes can inoculate our kids from inheriting our own math anxieties and help them succeed. Phew.

The research team took a group of “high anxiety math parents” and had them read their kids math-related bedtimes stories nightly via an app called Bedtime Math. The stories presented math facts in whimsical, accessible storylines. After reading the stories, parents and kids had to answer a few simple math questions related to what they’d just read.

The kids recruited for the experiment were in first grade, and the experiment went on for three years, until they completed third grade – because, according to NPR, these are the years when kids’ math fears tend to emerge.

The researchers accessed these families a year after the experiment began and found that reading these stories helped parents feel more confident in their kids’ math interests and abilities. And after three years of the experiment, they found that the students’ abilities were on par with kids whose parents had high math confidence to begin with.

“These findings indicate that interventions involving parents and children together can have powerful lasting effects on children’s academic achievement and suggest that changes in parents’ expectations for their children’s potential for success in math, and the value they place on this success, play a role in these sustained effects,” the researchers wrote.

Yep. It totally makes sense that the way we present the whole math thing to our kids – and the extent that we help them feel capable of doing it themselves – can have a huge impact on their future success.

As the NPR article points out, using a math app isn’t your only option, either. Finding fun ways to integrate math into daily life – like during cooking and while you do games and puzzles together – are also great ways to make you and your child feel more confident about the subject.

I think it’s also worth mentioning that some kids are just a little more naturally adept at math than others. So while it’s important to work on your own “math anxiety” and help your kids feel more relaxed about the subject, you shouldn’t beat yourself up too much if you have a kid who struggles with math.

Still, it goes without saying that our own feelings and inadequacies can easily get transferred to our kids if we are not mindful of them. And it’s nice to know that if math gives us anxiety, we can still raise kids who are math wizards – or at least comfortable and competent in the subject.

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