Mathematics is a skill that people use throughout their lives, so children must learn this skill at school. Unfortunately, both children and adults can feel stressed and anxious when doing math. People who experience these feelings of stress when faced with math-related situations may be experiencing what is called “math anxiety.”
Math anxiety can affect anyone at any stage in life because it is related to poor math ability in school and later adulthood. So, if you have ever felt stressed or anxious when dealing with a math-related situation or have seen your child becoming stressed when doing math homework, it may be math anxiety.
You are not on your own if you have ever experienced stress or anxiety when dealing with math. Many people can feel extremely nervous and overwhelmed when faced with a situation that requires mathematics. But math anxiety is more than just a feeling of nervousness when facing problems. Nervousness is a sensible reaction to a problem that is actually scary or poses a danger. However, anxiety does not make sense when dealing with math. This would mean that a person may feel anxious even though he or she knows there is no real reason to feel threatened or in danger.
Anxiety can cause physical symptoms such as racing heart or sweating. With such physical reactions, many people who have math anxiety tend to avoid situations in which they have to do math. Children with math anxiety will often have poor math skills because their first instinct is to avoid the problem. Adults with math anxiety are less likely to succeed in careers relating to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
It is essential to understand how math anxiety first appears especially when diagnosing a child. It is important to understand what is happening in the brain when a child feels anxious about math so a parent can best help their child with math anxiety.
Until recently, educators thought that math anxiety first appeared when children learned complicated mathematics (such as algebra). So, this would mean that young children who do not yet do complicated math would not experience math anxiety. However, recent research shows that some children as young as six years old say that they feel anxious about math.
A recent study examined 154 children in grades 1 and 2 who were asked questions such as,”How do you feel when taking a big test in your math class?” The children were required to indicate how nervous they felt by pointing to a position on a scale ranging from very nervous to calm. After answering these questions, children took a math test that measured their math abilities. It was found that almost half of the children who participated in this study reported that they were at least somewhat nervous about doing math, and the children with higher math anxiety got worse scores on the math test. This research can show that math anxiety and the relationship between math anxiety and math ability can develop when children are very young.
Although research has found that math anxiety and math abilities are related, no study so far has been able to tell which comes first. In other words, it is not yet known if poor math skills cause anxiety or if having math anxiety makes people worse at math.
Educators do have two ideas about how math anxiety may develop. The first is that children who have difficulty with learning numbers when they are very young are more likely to develop math anxiety when they start going to school. The other idea is that math anxiety develops in children who experience certain social situations that can influence the child’s thoughts or feelings. This means the child’s emotions, behaviours, or opinions are affected by things that other people say or do. One small study has shown that teachers with high math anxiety are more likely to have students with poorer math achievements at the end of the school year. This study helps to show that the way the teacher acted somehow affected the students’ math ability.
To better help a child suffering from math anxiety, a parent must understand the changes in the brain while doing math. Researchers believe that the human brain can only process a certain amount of information at a time. Working memory, the system in the brain that allows us to process information, is part of the human memory system that will enable us to remember and think about several things simultaneously. This skill is critical for doing math. For example, when a teacher presents a math problem, students must hold all the numbers in their minds, consider the steps needed to solve the problem and write out the answer simultaneously. Researchers believe that when people feel anxious, the math anxiety they feel is using up some of their working memory, so there is not as much leftover to help solve the math problem. If these people did not feel so anxious, they might have more working memory to solve the math problem.
Various studies have supported the idea that math anxiety uses working memory. Researchers have reported that students who have a high level of working memory perform better on math tests compared to those with a low level of working memory.
A separate study analyzed children with and without math anxiety while they were in a device called a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The MRI scanner was able to measure how hard each region of the brain was working during a specific task. This measurement, called “brain activation,” is counted when a brain region is working hard. Researchers found that a part of the brain called the amygdala is more activated in children with high math anxiety compared to children with low math anxiety. Overall, this study suggested that when children solve math problems, those with high math anxiety activate brain regions involved in anxiety. In contrast, those with low math anxiety activate brain regions involved in solving math problems.
While there is no treatment for math anxiety, educators believe a few tools and actions can help children overcome the condition. The tools that have been created to help people with math anxiety are called “interventions.” For example, educators have made interventions based on research showing that writing down feelings and thoughts beforehand can make children feel less nervous when taking a test. They believe that when children write down their thoughts and feelings, they would no longer occupy working memory while completing a math test. Breathing exercises have also been suggested to help students calm down before a math test. Students have indicated that they feel calmer before a test, and their scores have shown improvements. Together these intervention studies can provide ways to help students with math anxiety.
Along with interventions, Dropkick Math offers programs that can help a child improve their math skills. When a child becomes more confident in mathematics, their level of math anxiety decreases. With our fun and engaging programs, children will learn to become more at ease with math problems.
By understanding the fundamentals of the four pillars of math, students can reduce their math anxiety and acquire new skills that will set them up for a future of success. To help your child overcome their math anxiety, start by learning more about our programs.