Get Over Math Anxiety

6 steps to help kids do the math

Walk into a random classroom in any-school USA and at some point during the day, you’re likely to hear a take on the following claim: “I can’t do math!” 

Math anxiety is a real condition, defined as an apprehension or fear that interferes with the ability to perform calculations. For kids who have it, simply seeing a minus sign is enough to send them into a panic. If this sounds like your child, here are six teacher-vetted steps to help him overcome his fear and begin building confidence in math.

Step 1: ID a math comfort level.

Ask your child: “On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most confident, how confident are you in math?” Accept the answer your child gives, even if it seems off. Your job isn’t to convince her she’s wrong; it’s to help her feel intrinsically confident. So if she says she’s a 2, talk about why. Brainstorm what a 3 would feel like and ways to get to that level.

Step 2: Set achievable math goals.

Kids who struggle in math feel that “not being good at it” is a life sentence. They’ll never get it, so why try? Letting that attitude prevail is a slippery slope. Set specific, manageable goals. Instead of saying “I want to understand subtraction,” start with “In two weeks I will know how to subtract using regrouping.” With a clear attack plan, there can be no confusion once the goal is met.

Step 3: Eliminate math negatives. 

A study published in March concluded that math anxiety is not purely environmental — genetics can play a role as well. This doesn’t mean that if you struggled in math, your child is doomed. It does mean that you should keep any negative associations you have with math to yourself.

You can’t expect your child to feel good about math if he knows that you don’t see value in it. Stay positive, and model the learning process. If he needs help and you don’t have a clue what to do, check online for ideas or examples. Email the teacher for assistance or call a classmate to spark an understanding. 

NEXT PAGE: Steps 4-6. Plus, strategize like a math teacher.


Step 4: Let students teach math.

Good Non-Math Math Reads by Grade

Toddlers – Kindergarten

Duck and Goose 123 by Tad Hills

Chicka Chicka 123 by Bill Martin Jr. and Michael Sampson

The Greedy Triangle by Marilyn Burns

Grades 1- 3

A Place for Zero by Angeline LoPresti

Multiplying Menace by Pam Calvert

Full House: An Invitation to Fractions by Dayle Ann Dodds

Grades 4 – 6

Sir Cumference Series by Cindy Neuschwander

Zachary Zormer, Shape Transformer by Joanne Anderson Reisburg

Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett

What’s Your Angle Pythagoras? by Julie Ellis

Middle School and Older Kids

Math Doesn’t Suck by Danica McKellar

The Number Devil by Hans Magnus Enzensberger

Secrets, Lies and Algebra (part of the Do the Math series) by Wendy Lichtman

Once your child thinks she has learned a skill, let her practice by “teaching” you or a younger sibling. Even toddlers can grasp mathematical concepts like sorting shapes or drawing pictures to solve problems. And it’s not a bad idea for you to get a glimpse of the “new math” methods most schools now utilize. Having your child show you, say, how to divide using the partial-quotient method reinforces positive learning habits.

Step 5: Don’t rush the process.

One of the biggest issues kids have with math is that problem-solving evolves into a multi-step process with different ways to figure things out. Encourage deliberation. In math, struggling is good — it means you’re working hard, trying a variety of approaches, not giving up. Going through that process helps kids learn perseverance.

Step 6: Celebrate math success.

Remember those goals from step 2? Achieving them is cause for celebration. When a goal has been met, slip your student some stickers or let him stay up a little later that night. Celebrating small victories helps maintain momentum as math becomes more challenging and lets your child feel good about an area that previously caused stress. Building confidence won’t happen overnight, but with consistent support, it will happen.

Mom-of-two Beth Fornauf has taught math at the elementary and middle school levels

Categories: Education Features