How To Cure Math Anxiety

The Math Hurdle is Psychological and Circumstantial

Math anxiety is psychological but its sources are clear. Students who are afraid of math have real deficiencies – usually through no fault of their own!

Since math is a cumulative discipline requiring years of information, a student can perform well one year and terrible the next.

All it takes is one semester of your child not meshing well with the teacher to cause knowledge gaps. You can end up with a substitute teacher (which happens often), or you might have a teacher who is no longer invested in the success of his/her students – usually in those cases a significant percentage of the class is doing poorly.

The gaps just from one semester can start the snowballing effect of math anxiety. See our in-depth article on understanding math anxiety here.

Approaching Math Anxiety

Like with any kind of negative behavior or self-perception, math anxiety can’t be banished with words alone.

Phrases like “you shouldn’t have a fear of math” or “you can do it, get over it” are counter-productive. More than anything else, struggling students need our empathy and understanding. Furthermore, children and adults alike need proof to be convinced, especially when ample evidence such as continuous low grades confirms their negative self-assessment.

It is important to convince struggling students that they can learn math; but it takes time and patience.

Detecting Math Anxiety at Home

The longer someone thinks that they are bad at math, the harder it is to help them. Children who have been struggling for only a brief time – a semester or less – are much more receptive to help than those who have been struggling longer. After three years it becomes extremely difficult to reverse course.

Therefore, it is extremely important to notice the signs of math anxiety as soon as possible and head the problem off before it becomes a serious issue. Here are some indicators:

  • Their grades begin to slip. This is usually the first sign of a problem. It could result from a semester with a teacher that doesn’t fit the student’s learning style, or a change in school environment.
  • They say, “I hate math” or, “I’m bad at math.” This is the most obvious and is probably preceded by a record of low test scores and bad report card grades.
  • They become reclusive and don’t want to talk to you about school. Students will either be very vocal about their struggle with math or they will feel shame. An embarrassed child may try to hide their failures. As a parent, you need to make sure you’re seeing test scores and report cards. Don’t let them get away with saying, “everything’s fine.”

How To Overcome Math Anxiety

Overcoming math anxiety is a two part process.

First you have to expose students to math challenges that are scary but accomplishable. This helps students slowly regain their confidence.

At the same time, they need to build up their math skills so that they can work at grade level with their peers. They have to have real earned confidence.

Starting Simple Doesn’t Mean Cutting Corners

It’s easy for experienced tutors to quickly identify many of the gaps in the student’s cumulative knowledge of math – usually within the first few minutes of a tutoring session (see why we don’t do formal assessments here). From there, the tutor will start posing simple questions they can easily answer. This will usually involve going backwards to previous math lessons – sometimes to previous years.

Gradually, the questions get harder and the student will encounter a problem they should be able to solve, but can’t – usually due to a single missing skill. The tutor will then teach (usually re-teach) the skill, then select or create a set of a similar problems, and test the student with those problems until the skill is mastered.

As individual skills are mastered the tutor will pose more and more challenging problems – requiring new skills – repeating the cycle. The student will eventually find that they’ve caught up and that those super difficult questions in class are far less intimidating.

Their attitude slowly changes and their confidence grows. These same kids who were once insistent that they “can’t do it” start saying “this is hard but I can figure it out.”

Life Long Benefits

It is transformational when a person with a math phobia says, “this isn’t so bad.” The new found self-esteem can spill over into other areas and help them raise grades overall.

Even more valuable than their new-found confidence in math is a lifelong understanding of their great potential.

They may never need to use trigonometry again, but when they face difficulties as an adult they’ll know that challenges are meant to be overcome, that there’s little that they “can’t do”. Perseverance leads to results.

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Alex Friedman

Alex Friedman

Alex has enjoyed tutoring math, science, and other technical topics since he was a teenager at Stuyvesant High School. He graduated Summa Cum Laude from Northeastern University, worked as a Researcher at Carnegie Mellon, and did a brief stint as a technology consultant before leaving the corporate and academic worlds to start Brooklyn Math Tutors in 2009
Alex Friedman

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