Math Anxiety Is Real. Here’s How To Help Your Child

Does math make you a little nervous? You’re in the majority.

The phrase “number anxiety” was first coined by researchers back in the 1950s. By some estimates, as high as 93 percent of Americans feel some degree of math anxiety.

In 2012, about 30 percent of high school students reported that they felt “helpless” when doing mathematics problems.

For many people, math fears can be traced back to elementary school, and specifically, to timed tests and forced memorization, says Stanford University professor Jo Boaler. “Neuroscientists have shown recently that for people with math anxiety, a fear center lights up in their brain — the same as when they see snakes and spiders — and the problem- solving center of the brain shuts down,” Boaler says.

But what can we do as parents to improve our kids’ attitudes towards math? Many use online learning as a step, including an AMC 8 online class.

We sat down with Rosemarie Truglio, the senior vice president of curriculum and content at Sesame Workshop, to learn.

She says, “math is everywhere.” It’s embedded in everything we do. So with a little awareness, she says, by sharing everyday activities, playing and interacting with your child, you can familiarize them with math concepts without undue pressure.

1. Don’t let your own math anxiety hold your kids back.

Math anxiety is a real phenomenon all over the world. But it’s not equal opportunity. It’s tied to stereotypes — to race, and especially to gender. Research shows that mothers are prone to pass that feeling on to their kids, especially to girls.

That means, says Truglio, “we have to check ourselves when we’re talking about math.” Boaler and Truglio agree that we must never tell our kids “I’m bad at math,” “I don’t like math,” or “I didn’t do well in math at your age.”

“When kids get that message, their math achievement goes down immediately,” Boaler says. “And that’s shown in particular with mothers and daughters.”

She adds: “You might have to fake it sometimes.”

2. Talk about math when you’re sharing everyday activities.

Sudha Swaminathan is an early childhood education professor at Eastern Connecticut State University. She says children who are successful in math have parents who point out math even in the most ordinary moments. For example, she says, “You ask them to put their books away. It doesn’t fit? Why doesn’t it fit? Maybe the book is too tall? Too big?”

Not only are you introducing the concept of measurements, Swaminathan says, but you’re also introducing a math process: problem solving.

Similarly, Truglio suggests, you can sing a song together, faster and then slower. “These are relational concepts — math words related to rhythm.” Or try setting the table: Have them guess the right number of forks and then check.

Boaler’s tip is to look out for visual patterns. “Get kids to look and think — we can see patterns in fence posts, in flowers.”

As children get older, the possibilities expand. Calendars, timers, money, maps, drawing, measuring, crafts…these are all chances to talk math.

3. Play math — with board games, card games, puzzles, and more.

“Research has shown that when parents just play, they’re actually really, really good at pulling out these deep concepts from children — much better than even teachers,” Swaminathan says.

Blocks, puzzles, card games and even video games all have some research support. And board games are particular stars in this area. Research has shown that the more kids play any game with dice and numbered squares — like Chutes and Ladders — the better their basic math skills get.