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‘Math anxiety is definitely real’: Steps to help parents and children overcome their fear of the subject

UPDATED: Mon., Oct. 5, 2020


Math is often the subject that equates to schoolwork struggles at home – or perhaps a renewed anxiety for Mom and Dad. It doesn’t have to be so.

Research has found “math anxiety” started for many adults in elementary school under pressure of timed number problems or rote memorizing. Spokane learning experts say math education today has moved toward teaching children about how numbers make sense in everyday connections and solutions.

To help kids avoid parental aversions to math, families can move beyond past obstacles. Debbie Olson is CEO for Spokane-based Mathematics Education Collaborative, a nonprofit that works to improve math education and provides professional development for teachers and administrators in teaching math.

“Math anxiety is definitely real, and it’s prevalent,” Olson said. “You see it in students, in parents and definitely in adult learners to the point it can be crippling to them if they’re asked to do mathematics or share their mathematical thinking. It can put people in a real panic.”

Olson said continuing research has helped educators understand that forced memorization and math recall under pressure don’t end well.

“We’re learning there’s a real problem with asking people to learn mathematics in a way that doesn’t make sense to them,” she said.

“When we are young and play with numbers, and make sense of numbers, math makes sense. But as soon as we tell students just do it this way for whatever reason – it’s faster or I like it better – there is a very strong message that you don’t do what makes sense to you, just do it this way.

“A lot of us experienced learning math that way. That’s not only a turnoff to the excitement of learning, but it actually makes it harder for people later to make sense of mathematics.”

Rather than being like a human calculator and disengaged, math learners need frequently to use numbers and patterns in natural problem-solving and toward making sense of them in the world, Olson said.

So how can parents help? It starts by avoiding talk about their negative memories of school math, said Jerry Post, franchise owner of two Spokane Mathnasium locations, part of math tutoring centers nationwide.

“The first thing is we can’t pass along our own math anxiety to our child,” Post said. “Mom or Dad might say, ‘I’m not a math person; that was a class I hated in school’ or ‘Algebra is impossible.’

“I do think it kind of conditions kids to get it in their heads that if they start to find challenges in math, that must mean they’re not a math person, and they’re just never going to get it.”

Post said he hears more about parents’ bad math experiences than he does students’. Math subjects were easy for him until Calculus 2 in college, so he gets it.

“For a lot of parents, it’s kind of traumatizing to see their child go through the same anxiety,” he said.

Math prep can stress out an entire household, Post said, and become emotional, “especially if Mom or Dad feels anxious.”

Try to step back. It might help to view today’s math learning as a progression, said Shianne Saylor, a teacher and math coach at Audubon Elementary.

“It’s a laid-out plan from kindergarten all the way through high school of a progression of how things go, so you kind of have to trust in the system and the progression,” Saylor said.

“I know parents sometimes can get frustrated that it’s different from when we were in school, but eventually we do get to what the parents do recognize more. We do a lot of work with conceptual understanding, so when you understand math conceptually, it makes it a little easier to understand literally, as well, not just memorizing steps.

“But it’s a productive struggle, so for kids – just as with anything in life – it’s OK to struggle as long as it’s a productive struggle. If they start getting frustrated, it might be time for a break or to switch gears, but make sure we don’t try to swoop in and answer questions right away.”

Instead, ask kids questions and perhaps say, “That’s interesting,” and “you’re trying to understand, good,” Saylor said. Often, the solutions come later.

Daily doses

Post said he’d encourage parents to look for simple and fun opportunities every day to bring math into their children’s lives such as with a recipe.

“I think baking is a great way to learn things like fractions – get out the measuring cups and measuring spoons and talk about, ‘OK, we’re going to double this recipe, what do we need to do?’ ” Post said.

“When you go to a restaurant, have your child calculate the tip. When you fill up the gas tank, take a few minutes and figure out how many miles per gallon are we getting? Try to make math fun, to find everyday examples not just for practice but to help them understand that, yeah, this is something I’m going to use the rest of my life.”

Post said he sees many students struggle in algebra by middle school or ninth grade, perhaps because they never really understood foundational math – addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

“Maybe they mastered it in fourth grade and then kind of started relying on their calculator for the next few years.” By algebra, “the calculator really doesn’t help when you’re trying to solve for X.”

At home, reinforce calculations and fractions – often.

“Coins are a great way to reinforce counting by fives, by tens. Decimal places – a lot of students can’t grasp the concept of a fraction – like what’s a quarter of a number? Then you get out four quarters and talk about how that is a dollar, and one quarter is one-fourth, and then it all starts to come together for them.”

Talk about how a weekly allowance builds over time. Ask kids to apply math to summer building projects or a Christmas gift budget.

To refresh on remembering fractions, parents can look up free online math videos, Post said. Math is like learning Spanish, he added. With daily applications, you become fluent.

Olson said games such as 20 questions about a number you’re thinking of or Yahtzee are great for mental math.

She also said it’s good for parents to think about how mistakes in math are important toward learning and that it’s OK if their child might approach mathematics differently.

STEM, Common Core

Science, technology, engineering and math programs are attracting more girls who excel and enter those careers, Post said. Most of Mathnasium’s Spokane tutors are college women with math or engineering majors, he said.

“For parents, it’s just really important for them to encourage their daughters to speak up in class and ask questions,” said Post, who has three daughters with his wife, KXLY meteorologist Kris Crocker.

“That’s the No. 1 feedback I get from parents who are bringing their daughters in and they say, ‘She’s struggling a little bit in math, and she’s just too shy to ask for help or to raise her hand in class.’ Math in large part does come down to confidence – not just confidence to answer the questions but confidence to ask when you don’t understand.”

Post said Common Core math, likely here to stay, differs in approach from how adults learned the subject.

“It’s really trying to learn math in a more applied way rather than just rote memorization, so students are being taught to add and multiply in a different way than their parents did,” he said.

“I hear from parents, ‘I don’t understand why they’re teaching our kids math this way. I hate it. I think it’s stupid,’ and boy, the kids hear that. If Mom or Dad think this is stupid, why am I even bothering to do it this way?”

Parents can ask about understanding the different approach.

“Teachers are willing to help if you want to shoot an email and say, ‘I learned how to multiply a two-digit number this way … can you give me a little practice sheet so I can understand how you’re teaching my child?’

“I think that will go a long way to giving you the confidence to work with your student and for the student feeling like, ‘Oh, Mom or Dad really does understand what I’m doing here.’ ”

It’s also OK to back away and help a child seek extra help at school or from tutors.

If children really struggle, “let them know that you’re going to get them the help,” Post said.

That can include helping them arrange an afternoon Zoom call with their teacher.

Post said kids light up when they get concepts and math makes sense. At Mathnasium, students might start at two to three years behind their grade level.

“Within a few months, they’re working at grade level; even more importantly, they’re enjoying it,” he said.

“It gives you more confidence when you’re going to negotiate your salary, borrow money or refinance your house. It enriches your life in so many ways.”

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