There seem to be two prevailing opinions about math in America. The first is how important it is. We want more kids to be excelling in math and choosing careers in STEM (science technology, engineering and math) topics. But at the same time, many Americans are also quick to say, “I’m terrible at math.” More than any other subject, math is considered something people are either really good at, or really not.
Taken together, these two ideas — that math is important and that success in math is rare — are a perfect way to make kids anxious about math. And we know that once kids are feeling worried about something, learning it becomes harder.
“Anxiety really can impact a lot of the things that are important for learning, like attention, memory and processing speed,” says Matthew Pagirsky, PsyD, a neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute. Feeling anxious also makes people develop self-defeating thoughts like “I’m not good at this” and “I’ll never be able to understand this,” which increases the stress they are feeling.
“You become sort of worried or heightened and then you get that vicious cycle going where you underperform because you’re anxious,” explains Dr. Pagirsky. “Then you think: ‘Here’s proof that I’m not good at this!’ which reinforces the belief.”
What causes math anxiety?
There are a number of reasons why math might feel intimidating for students. There’s the idea already mentioned that math is for geniuses. Benjamin Braun, a math professor and blog editor for the American Mathematical Society, reports that when he polled the students in one of his upper-level math courses, over half admitted to fearing that they weren’t actually any good at math. This despite the fact that they were almost all math majors or minors who had already taken two semesters of calculus as a prerequisite for his class. He said this experience repeats itself every year.
Where does this anxiety start? One factor may be that children haven’t developed positive associations with math before they start school, they way they do with reading. While parents read with children and help them develop reading skills, doing math for fun with parents at home is almost unheard of. When children encounter math at school, the concepts are often entirely new, and the only preparation they will have received are the messages they might have picked up from others, like the idea that math is really hard, or girls aren’t good at math.
Math anxiety can also function similarly to test anxiety — the fact that there’s a right and a wrong answer in math can be intimidating to kids who are already a little anxious or afraid of failure. The way we evaluate math skills is also more intimidating for anxious kids. There are no timed drills in history class, for example.
The impact of working memory
Dr. Pagirsky says that it’s actually pretty common for some kids to feel okay about math when they are younger, only to hit a kind of roadblock in middle school, when math starts getting more conceptual. “During middle school, there’s more math reasoning that’s involved,” he explains. “There’s more steps you have to remember, more rules and little details that you have to pay attention to.”
These skills all require use of something called working memory. Your working memory is like the mental scratch pad that holds all the information you might need for a given task. If you need to remember the Pythagorean theorem or figure out the order of operations for a calculation or even just do a two-column addition problem, you will need to use your working memory.
When people are feeling anxious, it becomes harder for them to access their working memory because they are preoccupied with their fear. This preoccupation drains the cognitive resources they would otherwise have at their disposal. There is a lot of research to back this up, including research specifically about math anxiety. For example, in a 2001 study by Mark Ashcraft and Elizabeth Kirk, people with math anxiety exhibited a pronounced decline in working memory capacity when tested on a computation-based task but no decline on a verbal-based task, indicating that their working memory was only compromised when their math anxiety was triggered.
Tricks to support working memory
For students who find themselves feeling overwhelmed in class, offloading some of the demand placed on their working memory might help. Dr. Pagirsky recommends the following techniques:
Create a mnemonic
A mnemonic is a kind of memory device that helps a person remember information she might otherwise forget. A common mnemonic that children learn in school is the name Roy G. Biv to remember the colors of the rainbow (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet).
When faced with a complicated equation, like:
10 + ( 5 x 52 ) – 15
students might use the mnemonic Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally to help them remember where to begin calculating. Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally represents the correct order of operations: Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction.
Different kinds of mnemonics will work for different people. Instead of Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally, some find an acronym made from the first letters (PEMDAS) easier to recall. Or your mnemonic could be set to a song. The quadratic equation has been set to the nursery rhyme “Pop! Goes the Weasel” and, if you go to YouTube, One Direction and Adele. Mnemonics can also be visual — go with whatever is most memorable.
Write out important information before you begin your test
Having a mnemonic is a good first step, but as soon as you get a copy of your test, or as soon as you begin working on homework for the night, it’s a good idea to write down the facts or equations that you will need to remember. That way you can refer back to them if you are feeling confused or need reassurance. “You’re not having to keep in mind all those procedures if you write them out on a piece of paper, so you can actually reduce some of the working memory load,” says Dr. Pagirsky, “which in turn can reduce some anxiety about it as well.”
Try thinking verbally
“For kids who have better verbal abilities, just being able to talk out their strategy and give a good explanation of what they want to do and how they should solve it, and maybe getting corrective feedback along the way, can be really helpful,” says Dr. Pagirsky. Similarly, students can write out their strategy during homework or a test. In this approach students are walking themselves through how to think about the problem, at their own pace and in language they might feel more comfortable in. With this technique they might find that they understand more than they realize about how to solve the problem, and switching to a more verbal approach helps them think more clearly.
While working memory is an important component of succeeding in math, resetting how we think about math is also necessary. If kids think that math isn’t for them — either you get it or you don’t, and they don’t — they aren’t going to feel hopeful or even motivated about learning. This way of thinking about math has parallels to psychologist Carol Dweck’s research on the different mindsets that people have when it comes to learning things.
Dr. Dweck has found that people who have what she calls a “fixed mindset” think that success is based on an innate ability, while people with a “growth mindset” think that success is based on hard work, which means that your abilities are malleable and can always be improved.
People with a fixed mindset perceive failure as proof of their limits — obviously they can’t succeed at this. People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, believe that their abilities can improve with hard work, and may interpret a failure as a sign that they should try harder next time.
In 2007 a group of researchers including Dr. Dweck studied the math achievement of students with both fixed and growth mindsets at the start of junior high. They found that the students’ scores were comparable at the beginning of the study, but as their coursework became more difficult, the students with a growth mindset showed more persistence and got better grades.
Praising hard work
Parents and teachers can help kids become more resilient learners by changing how we praise children and adjusting what we think of as a successful learning experience. Math is hard for many kids, but that doesn’t mean they are doomed to never understand it. Praise them for the work that they put in, not for the grade that they get.
“I think we have to teach kids from a very young age that it’s okay to make mistakes,” says Dr. Pagirsky. “It’s okay to be open to the experience of not knowing, it’s okay to not always have the answer. The best thing parents and educators can do is be there for those times when kids do struggle and reinforce that, hey, you’re working hard, you’re trying to do well, and I’m going to provide some help.”
Doing math together at home
Just like it’s a good idea to read to your children, it’s also a good idea for you to do math together. Of course, parents often have their own anxieties about math. As with any other kind of anxiety, it’s important to try not to pass on your fears to your children.
“If you’re not as confident about math, or you had some difficulty in that growing up, then trying to pass along that knowledge to kids can be really anxiety-provoking,” acknowledges Dr. Pagirsky. Still, you are probably better at math than you realize because our everyday lives require a lot of math reasoning. So give yourself some credit, and think about ways that you can introduce math concepts to children in a fun and accessible way. Ideas for doing math together include:
- Count things: Legos, napkins, sides on a square, etc.
- During cooking talk about fractions (half of a pepper, three-quarters of a cup of flour) and practice doubling and halving ingredients in a recipe.
- Practice totaling a check and figuring out a tip together.
- Discuss patterns and shapes.
- Measure things using a ruler.
- Compare prices of items at the store.
While you are doing these things, don’t shy away from using the correct vocabulary — we want children to get used to hearing about fractions, inches, multiplication and percentages — and explicitly call what you’re doing “math.” Your goal is to make math familiar and accessible.
You can also consider making math part of your bedtime routine. You might want to use Bedtime Math or a similar resource for ideas. Every day the Bedtime Math website and app features a new child-friendly math anecdote and related questions to pose to children of different ages and abilities.
Handling difficult homework questions
When a child asks question about homework, especially when the homework is getting advanced or it’s been a long time since you’ve thought about it, Dr. Pagirsky says it’s okay to say you don’t know. “Some people might feel the need to put more pressure on themselves to try to get it right. But saying ‘I don’t know’ can actually reduce a lot of the anxiety about having the right answers.” Better yet, Dr. Pagirsky recommends saying, “Let’s look it up together and find out.” That way you’re modeling the best way to respond when you don’t know something — which is one of the most important lessons there is.