The first day of school is full of excitement: new teachers, new supplies and the chance for a fresh start. And then the second day comes, and reality swoops in, along with handouts and homework assignments. While many kids are able to coast through September on back-to-school momentum, others battle anxiety and a lack of confidence from the start.
Unfortunately for many students, the cause of these feelings is related to one subject: math.
You’ve heard the claims before: “I can’t do math” or “Oh, I’m just not a math person” or even, “Ugh! I hate math!” Most often, it’s adults sharing these thoughts, but as a teacher I frequently heard these cries creeping into my classroom. And nothing kills motivation like negative, can’t-do attitudes.
Math anxiety is a real condition, defined as an apprehension or fear of math that interferes with one’s performance. Researchers have been looking closely at its roots and impact since the early 1980s. Causes vary greatly, and are largely environmental.
For children who lack confidence in math, or suffer from anxiety, simply seeing a subtraction sign is enough to send them into a panic. If this sounds like your child, read on to find out what you can do to help them overcome their fear of factors (and multiples), and begin building confidence in math.
Step 1: Identify a comfort level. As a teacher, it’s important to have a sense of how students see themselves as learners. As a parent, and your child’s most important (and influential) teacher, you need to have the same sense. So ask them, “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 you, even if it seems way off. Your job isn’t to convince them they’re wrong, it’s to help them feel intrinsically confident. So if your child says they’re a 2, talk about why. Brainstorm what a 3 confidence level would feel like, and jot down ideas about what they could learn to get there.
Step 2: Set measurable, achievable goals. Too often, kids who struggle in math feel that ‘not being good at it’ is a life sentence. That’s the end of the road; they’ll never get it, so why try? Allowing that attitude to prevail is a slippery slope (algebra pun not intended).
Setting small, measurable goals achieves two purposes: Students feel ownership in what they want to accomplish, and success when they master it. The key is to make the goals specific. Instead of saying, “I want to understand subtraction” or, “I want to be good at algebra,” start with something manageable, such as, “In two weeks, I will know how to subtract using regrouping (borrowing).” This way, you and your child can map out the steps you need to take, and there will be no confusion once the goal is met.
Step 3: Eliminate your own negatives. An Ohio State University study published in March 2014 concluded that math anxiety is not purely environmental. The research indicates that genetics can actually have a role as well. Now this doesn’t mean that if a mom struggled in math, her kids are doomed. But it does mean (for your child’s sake) you should eliminate your negative associations or at least keep them to yourself.
If you go around saying you don’t like math, or you shudder when your son or daughter brings home a fractions sheet, you’re sending a message that math is scary. And if your child is predisposed to have some difficulty in math, adding fear into the mix won’t help.
You can’t expect your child to feel good about math if they know that you don’t see value in it. Stay positive, and model the learning process. If your child needs help with something and you don’t have a clue what to do, show them some steps they can take to get going. Check online for ideas or similar problems. Email the teacher and ask for examples. Maybe even have your child call a friend to see if the friend can spark a clue. Let your child know that being stuck is not an excuse to give up, and that struggling is part of the process.
Step 4: Allow affect. It’s hard to see your child upset. Parental instinct dictates that kids need support, encouragement and affirmation. And they do - but they also need to feel frustrated. Students who genuinely lack confidence in, or even fear math, need to feel like they are being heard. Honor their feelings. Don’t try to change their minds or convince them that math isn’t so bad because to them, it is. Accept and acknowledge the way they feel, and give them time to move past that.
Step 5: Let them teach. Once your child thinks they have learned a skill, let them practice by ‘teaching’ a younger sibling. Even toddlers can learn strategies like sorting shapes or drawing pictures that solve problems. In addition to boosting your math-anxious child’s confidence, these skills are useful math tools that are great to introduce to young kids.
But don’t let the lessons stop there. Parents of my former students were often puzzled about the ‘new math’ and how solving problems isn’t like it used to be. Okay, so learn. Let your kid teach you how to divide using the partial quotients method. Or maybe the Pythagorean Theorem is a distant, fuzzy memory? Relearn it. Ask questions, reinforce and model positive learning habits.
Step 6: Don’t rush the process. One of the biggest issues kids have with math is a problem that is not quick or easy to figure out. As kids advance in elementary and middle school, problem-solving evolves into a multi-step process, and there are different ways to figure things out.
Encourage deliberation. In math, struggling is a good thing - it means you’re working hard, trying different approaches, not giving up. Going through that process will help kids learn perseverance as they continue in math, and in life.
Step 7: Celebrate success. Remember those goals your child set? Achieving them is cause for celebration, especially in the beginning. No, you don’t need to throw a party when your child masters place value, but you do need to acknowledge when a goal has been met. So slip your student some stickers (even older kids like them!) or let them stay up a little later that night. Celebrating small victories will help maintain momentum as math becomes more challenging, and also let your child feel good about an area that previously caused them stress.
Building confidence won’t happen overnight, but with consistent support at home, it will happen. You may even end up sharpening your own skills. So fight the math fear from the start and help your child go back to school with confidence.
Teacher strategies (straight from the classroom!) that can work at home:
• Create a K-W-L chart for new concepts - Make a chart with three columns: a ‘K,’ a ‘W’ and an ‘L.’ Under the ‘K,’ write what your child knows, and under the ‘W,’ write what your child wants to know. When they master the concept, reflect by listing what they have learned under ‘L.’
• Use authentic math models - Organize your grocery lists into quadrants for produce, meat, etc.; make a table of family chores; use tally marks to keep track of behaviors. Be creative!
• Talk the talk - Use math language whenever possible. Point out shapes like rectangles or circles in nature, and the house. Use terms like ‘area’ and ‘perimeter’ when cleaning or reorganizing rooms. You may find it helpful too!
• Create a word wall - Use sticky notes and a marker to stick up math vocabulary words in your kitchen or your child’s bedroom. If your child is artistic, have them illustrate each word’s meaning.
• Take a motor break - If your homework hour is hitting a wall, take a break and move around. Often a simple change in position or environment can refresh a tired mind.
Beth is a freelance writer, and mother of two. A former ‘math-phobic,’ she overcame her fear, and has taught math at the elementary and middle school levels. In addition to helping students build confidence in math, she also hopes they realize that math can be fun!
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