What is Math Anxiety? Is there a Remedy?
You’ve heard it said, “I’m not really good with numbers” or “I’m not a math wizard.” While there may be a bit of legitimacy to such phrases, these quips are often perpetuated without full consideration of those that may be listening, especially young students who have just begun the formal academic exploration of their aptitude or, more simply, their gifts. So, in all of its phraseological cogency, the subtle equation of “math” with “hard” or “impossible” makes an indelible impression on, what should be, the most impressionable minds.
Granted, not all students internalize societal or popular messages at the same rate and, in fact, some seemingly negative stereotypes might actually spur students to greater levels of achievement in order to “bust” the myths; however, promoting the philosophically blanketed statement “the sky’s the limit” or “you can do anything you put your mind to!” while simultaneously trying to combat the “I’m not really good with numbers” can sometimes unwittingly place a student in a psychological pit.
If left unchecked, this kind of cognitive distress can lead questioning students into experiencing math anxiety, which is more than a passing feeling of incompetence. That is, math anxiety is a real, tension-laden response to numerical manipulation that can have far-reaching implications for any person, but math anxiety can be particularly damaging for young students, especially since the formative years are such strong determinants of future success.
While math anxiety can be prevented through the promotion of positive messages via consciousness raising efforts, there are some students who, despite receiving encouraging reinforcement, may still exhibit the symptoms. Once a student has been identified as exhibiting all the symptoms of math anxiety, there are numerous, yet completely effective, practices that students, parents, and teachers can work together and engage in.
Here’s a short list:
1. Breathing techniques
Breathing has long been an effective go-to coping mechanism for therapists and counselors treating a wide variety of patients who experience regular episodes of anxiety. Breathing techniques can include counting processes or, in severe cases, working on dissociations. For students that exhibit high levels of math anxiety, for example, it might be worthwhile to practice cultivating calming images when data is presented.
2. Instilling confidence
One of the greatest barriers to math achievement, candidly, is lack of confidence. “Imposter syndrome”, affecting some of the most accomplished people, including greats like Denzel Washington and Neil Armstrong, prove that, even in the face of verifiable success, a sizeable portion of personal perceptions of success is dependent on confidence and assurance in one’s abilities. This makes instilling confidence and providing positive affirmations all the more valuable in alleviating stress endured by students experiencing math anxiety.
3. Emphasizing the importance of learning rather than test results
Unfortunately, the objective nature of exams makes this practice nearly impossible given drilled-down mechanisms and ultimate outcomes in our current structures. That is, inasmuch as educators would rather inspire a passion to learn, standards are still required to be met and assessments required to be passed. As a result, anxiety actually begins to ratchet up in accordance with meeting prescribed success measures; however, such stress can be mitigated by offering a series of practice (or formative) tests throughout the semester that have minimal impact on overall course grades. This is a particularly timely practice for math teachers, as it coheres with the maxim “practice makes perfect”. When students have multiple opportunities to practice and prepare, the prospect of underperforming on the practice exams poses little internal stress and, as a result, students focus on learning the content rather than on reaching a desired numerical outcome.
In the long term, we would do well, societally speaking, to dedicate greater energy to emphasizing our strengths rather than berating ourselves over perceived weaknesses. Even if our math skills need considerable improvement, utilizing blanket phrases or generalizations like “I’m just not good with numbers” may unintentionally hinder a young learner, particularly given the ambiguity of the statement and the equation of “potential” with “badness”. In short, practicing mindfulness and offering safe, comfortable environments for learners that inspire confidence and reassurance can actually go a long way. Especially for the student that, unbeknownst to us, suffers silently with math anxiety on a daily basis.
Written by Lindsay Reeves
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