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6 ways to help your child overcome math anxiety

Madhavi Bongarala

Okay class, you have 10 minutes to complete the test. Start winding up!”

Arun stared in panic at the math question paper lying in front of him. So many numbers….so many sums to solve in such a short period of time. He could feel his heart beating faster and faster. Arun didn’t know what he was supposed to do. He spent countless hours studying for the test… but right now his mind went blank.

Arun, like many other children, is experiencing what is known as math anxiety. Math anxiety can be understood as an adverse emotional reaction to mathematics that interferes with an individual’s ability to solve problems and manipulate numbers not just in academic situations but in everyday life as well. Research on math anxiety has shown that it develops at a very early age and can extend well into adulthood leading students to delay or avoid taking math courses.

What is happening in the brain when a child is experiencing math anxiety?

It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that your child fears math because they’re simply not good at it. But this might not be the entire story......This is because for people with math anxiety, there is reduced activity in parts of the brain responsible for working memory and mathematical processing, namely dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the intraparietal sulcus.

Working memory is very important for doing math because it helps us to remember and work with many things together at the same time. For example, if a teacher reads a problem out, your child has to be able to remember all the numbers, think of all the steps needed to solve the problem and write it down simultaneously. So, if your child is anxious, their anxiety may start to fill their working memory with thoughts of how afraid they are of math instead of using it to solve the math problem. In addition to this, math anxious children show increased activity in the amygdala, an almond-shaped part of the brain responsible for processing negative emotion.

You can think of the amygdala as your brain’s fear centre. To sum it up, individuals with math anxiety show more brain activation in areas of the brain responsible for negative emotion and less activation in brain areas responsible for mathematical thinking.

How can you reduce math anxiety?

Numerous studies have shown that parents play a critical role in developing their children’s attitude toward math. Here are some scientifically proven ways you can help your children overcome their fear of math-

1. Be aware of your own attitude towards the subject-

According to new research from the University of Chicago, children can pick up on their parents' feelings about math. This means if you’re afraid of math you might be passing on math anxiety to your child unknowingly. You heard it right. Math anxiety is contagious. As parents, you need to create that desire in your child to learn. So instead of walking around your child saying “I hate math” or “I’m not good at math”, try turning everyday life experiences into learning opportunities for your child. For example, you could show your child how math is used while grocery shopping, cooking or counting change. In addition to creating a platform for mathematical conversation, making connections to everyday activities may help your child realize that math is an important skill to possess.

2. Encourage them to write or talk about their feelings-

You can help your child overcome the fear by creating an environment where your child can openly discuss their feelings. Now as humans, we are programmed to focus more on the negatives than the positives. This can extend into parenting as well. According to Lea Waters, professor of positive psychology at the University of Melbourne, it’s time we start paying attention to our child’s strengths instead of their weaknesses. This can help shift the dynamic between the parent and the child from the child always feeling like “My parents always see the bad in me” to “My parents are seeing the good in me at all times. Maybe I am good after all”. You’re actually opening up the door to have constructive conversations with your child about their weaknesses because the child doesn’t feel defensive anymore. Not only this, if you focus most of your attention on your child’s flaws the most you can do is eliminate the flaw. You’re simply pushing your child from lowest to average. But if you focus on building your child’s strengths instead, you are working with their child to give their best in more than one area. In other words, use your child’s strengths to eliminate their weaknesses. This will give them immense confidence in their abilities.

You could even encourage them to write down their thoughts and feelings before taking a test to make them feel less nervous. This is known as expressive writing. Researchers showed that students who were made to write about their math-related worries performed better on their math test than other students in their class who didn’t. This is because writing about their worries helped free their cognitive resources that were once clouded with a lot of nerve-racking thoughts.

3. The power of positive reinforcement-

Math anxiety often stems as a result of an embarrassing or negative experience your child had with math in previous years. Such an experience can have a lasting impact on your child, leading him/her to believe they lack the ability to do math. This belief can further result in poor performance which serves as confirming evidence to the child that they just don’t possess a “math brain” like their peers.

So the next time you sit down to review your child’s work done at school or while practicing sums, point out everything he/she has done right. The idea is to make your child feel like they can excel in math. More so, it is important that you praise and reward your child for the thought process involved in solving the problem instead of focusing on whether they got the sum right or wrong. Give them the time and space to work through it. This will not only help your child come out of their shell but will also help in building their confidence in the subject.

4. Make Math Fun-

Traditionally, math is taught as a subject that involves getting the right answer and moving on. This causes a lot of anxiety in children because it doesn’t give them the space to think. Playing games can help alleviate this anxiety and can also get kids excited about the subject. I mean - who doesn’t enjoy scavenger hunts? Get creative. Make clues that require your child to use their math skills. You could also fill your home with blocks, puzzles, and games such as Cloud Hoppers, Alberts Insomnia or Monster Sock Factory which are all available for purchase online. Apart from being a fun way to learn math skills, games give your child the freedom to explore and test new strategies without them having to worry about scoring less on a test or being embarrassed in front of the entire class. At the end of the day the goal isn’t to get the right answer but to learn the subject at a deep and fundamental level.

5. Teach your child anxiety reduction/management techniques-

Stress is a survival mechanism enabling us to get out of a dangerous situation quickly! Your body pumps all of its resources into getting you moving. Your heart starts beating faster and faster to increase blood pressure, your muscles tense and you become totally focused.

This is known as the flight or fight response. The problem is, this emergency state is supposed to last long enough to get you out of danger, but here in the 21st century we are constantly bogged down by different things and for much longer. This means your brain and body continue to stay on red alert resulting in chronically elevated levels of stress hormones such as cortisol at all times. This can leave adverse effects on your body’s neuroendocrine system, immune system, cardiovascular system and the central nervous system. Over a period of time, this can lead to serious physical and mental conditions such as anxiety and depression. But don’t worry, we have some encouraging news. The founder of Harvard’s mind and body medical institute, Dr Herbert Benson has devoted most of his career trying to understand how to counteract the effects of stress. In his book the Relaxation Response he explains how regular practice of relaxation techniques such as repetitive prayer, meditation, Tai Chi, yoga, breathing exercises and focusing on soothing words can serve as an effective treatment against stress related disorders. He describes the relaxation response as a state of deep relaxation which engages the other part of our nervous system-the parasympathetic nervous system. According to him, the relaxation response is a helpful way to counteract the physiological effects of stress. Several studies have shown how relaxation techniques can cause the area of the brain which reacts to stress, the amygdala, to quiet down in the face of stress, bringing it back to its original state again.

6. Help them develop a growth mind-set-

Children usually feel discouraged when they make a mistake in math. But, new research shows that mistakes are actually good for you because your brain literally grows every time you are faced with a challenge, in comparison to when you get it right. This is because it is at a time when your brain is facing a challenge, new connections are formed between brain cells. As parents you need to teach your children that the more they challenge their brains, the more their brain develops. One of the best ways you can do this is by talking freely about all the mistakes you’ve made, challenges you faced and about what you’ve learnt from them. By talking positively about them, your children will learn that taking risks and making mistakes are actually a big part of the learning process. This is will help them to develop a growth mind-set. Now children with a growth mind-set believe their abilities can be improved by working hard. These children tend to achieve more than children with a fixed mind-set who believe their abilities cannot change no matter how hard they try.


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