How to Deal With Kids’ Math Anxiety

| March 29, 2012 | 14 Comments
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Flickr: Grisha

By Annie Murphy Paul

In children with math anxiety, seeing numbers on a page stimulates the same part of the brain that would respond if they spotted a slithering snake or a creeping spider—math is that scary. Brain scans of these children also show that when they’re in the grip of math anxiety, activity is reduced in the information-processing and reasoning areas of their brains—exactly the regions that should be working hard to figure out the problems in front of them. These new findings, published this month in the journal Psychological Science, demonstrate that math anxiety is real and can’t simply be wished away. But there are specific exercises that have been shown to reduce students’ nervousness and allow them to focus on their work without the powerful distraction of fear.

In this latest experiment, Christina B. Young, Sarah S. Wu, and Vinod Menon of the Stanford University School of Medicine scanned the brains of 46 second- and third-graders with a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine as they solved addition and subtraction problems. Before climbing into the scanner, the children had completed tests of intelligence and working memory, and measures of math anxiety and general anxiety.

In the kids who worried a lot about math, the fMRI scans picked up a striking pattern: Regions of a brain structure called the amygdala, responsible for processing negative emotions, were hyperactive. At the same time, activity in the posterior parietal and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—areas involved in mathematical reasoning—was diminished. The scientists’ analysis of neural networks revealed that the two activity levels were connected: The buzz in the brain’s fear center was interfering with the ability of its problem-solving regions to do their job. The pattern the paper’s authors identified was specific to math, unrelated to general intelligence or to other kinds of anxiety.

There are exercises that reduce students’ nervousness and allow them to focus on their work.

Although this study is the first to pinpoint the neural basis of math anxiety in children and demonstrate its impact on brain functioning, other researchers have investigated the phenomenon and devised methods to counter it. Cognitive scientist Sian Beilock of the University of Chicago, for example, has theorized that math anxiety affects students’ performance in the subject by using up mental resources, such as working memory, that could otherwise be deployed in solving math problems. One way to relieve this burden on working memory, Beilock and her colleagues have found, is to spend ten minutes writing about one’s thoughts and feelings about a math exam just before taking it. Students effectively offload their worries onto the page, enabling them to tackle the test with a mind free of rumination and distraction. In the lab, Beilock reports, engaging in this exercise “eliminates poor performance under pressure,” and the method has produced encouraging results in real-life classroom settings as well.

Other approaches that have proven successful at reducing math anxiety and improving performance include having students reaffirm their self-worth by listing important values like relationships with friends and family, and having students think about why they might do well (“I am a student at a high-level university”) rather than poorly (“I am a girl taking a difficult math test”). These interventions are simple but effective: By deliberately shifting their frame of mind, students can make that creepy-crawly feeling of anxiety go away.


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  • Adam Coccari

    Great article Tina. I teach math in 4th and 6th grade and I saw many students that struggled with Math, not because they weren’t capable, but because of their anxiety surrounding the subject. Half the battle with these kind of kids is just making them feel comfortable and changing their attitude about math. These experiences are what inspired me to create a fun educational app to make math more fun and lessen some of the anxiety surrounding math practice. Kids seems to really like it, and they get to practice in a non-stressful way. Check out the video I made of them playing:

    Thanks for the great article!

  • Ellen

    I’m surprised at the example chosen for why someone may feel math anxiety: “I am a girl taking a difficult math test.” So easy to choose a highly applicable, more direct, and less stereotypical option, such as, “I’ve had a hard time completing the homework problems in this class,” and many others I can create in a few seconds …

  • LaToniya Jones

    This article is very timely. I have been exploring what the triggers in the brain are that support/ignite motivation and demotivation. What the triggers and causes are for the physiological changes that occur when people see numbers and run/cringe/sweat/hide.

    I have learned that when children make a meaningful connection with math they soar. But, first they need to remove the blocks (mentally and physically). I agree with Ellen that boys and girls experience anxiety in a very similar way. We must encourage them to address how they are feeling, connect it to a similar challenge in their lives, and then use those same strategies to overcome the “other” challenge with their math anxieties/challenges. That’s worked really well for me over the past 17 years with servicing k-20 students.

    Looking forward to reading more on this topic.

  • Susan Jones

    Since there’s also specific research showing that when students are thinking about pre-determined “ability” in math as attributed to gender, they don’t do as well, it makes sense that that is the example used.
        Dweck’s work on getting students to see their abilities as flexible (so that even if you are “not good at math” now, you can change that) would be good to apply here.
        Teaching math as understandable concepts (and assessing that) instead of procedures would help, too…

  • Jodi

    I also propose that by asking students to write ten minutes about their feelings, teachers are validating each student.  It shows that each and every student’s feelings are valuable.  If we then have students transfer this to the fact that their interpretation of the problem is valid, that their ideas on how to solve the problem are valuable, math anxiety can be reduced further.  

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  • Anonymous

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  • DUI evaluation

    There are children who are having Math anxiety attacks because of the notion of this subject’s difficulty. These ideas that you have shared in dealing with this are indeed very helpful to a lot of parents. Thanks for sharing.

  • David Anderson

    Math is one of the subjects that children don’t like. In fact, when I was still a student, I somehow dislike math, it adds up my stress and thinking why should I learn from this when all things are simple. Now I fully understand the purpose of it. I can see that children tends to follow the new technology and love to watch videos, I guess videos regarding with math would be good and educational. health condition

  • Nadirah

    Your article reminded me of a young lady that fainted in class one time right before an exam. The ambulance was called, They checked her out. Thank goodness she was ok. That was the very first time that I saw how an anxiety attack could affect a person. Although some of us make think that anxiety it is nothing and will go away easily, think about the person that is experiencing it.

  • Beth

    I think a big part of math anxiety has to do with our school system’s push for higher and higher level maths and earlier and elarlier ages. Not every child is developmentally ready to understand math concepts such as the ones that appear in Algebra and Geometry before high school and some not even then. I am very much better at math now that I’m an adult than i was when in high school. I also think that math minds (people who are truly good at math) often have trouble explaining math concepts to people who are not. At least that has been my experience.

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  • joemf

    interesting…I’ve been telling people for 50+ yrs. that’s exactly how I used to feel. But in those days I guess teachers thought they could ‘embarrass’ it out of you by sending you to the board to do math. (so you could feel 100% worse about your fear in front of everyone…it didn’t only made it worse)..thanks to new methods that avoid such tactics.

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