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Math anxiety is a very common phenomenon, which is unfortunate because it can ruin a school experience and have children miss out on loving learning.
When there is fear of math, children can choke up. This issue can get so big that it overshadows the work itself and can be detrimental to a child’s development in school. When a child feels afraid, she believes that she cannot do an assignment, even if the skill level is there. As that fear grows, new learning cannot take place and the child loses ground in developing necessary skills and concepts.
Recently, research published in the journal Cerebral Cortex by Dr. Sian L. Beilock and colleagues demonstrated that math anxiety overtakes brain functioning, making it difficult to process problems. As the researchers have found, and as we have found in our own work with children, if students are able to recognize the anxiety before it takes over and can transform it, they can be successful in math.
Here are two of our tips for how to overcome math anxiety:
When a student feels overwhelmed about math, there is a sense of meekness. She feels dominated by the topic. In addition, she begins to focus on the anxiety instead of the math itself, which divides attention, giving less time for problem solving and more time for worry. The solution is to capture fear and transform it into power.
To counter the fear, students should empower themselves by becoming “warriors of math”. They should think of a time when they feel in control and are strong, for example, perhaps while playing sports, acting in a play, or making a piece of art. Or they can think of a hero that they can identify with. Parents can help them recall the feelings felt during these times. They can also talk about past experiences of overcoming adversity and succeeding. In doing so, a shift in attitude will occur, as the student feels more confident. Parents can then help their children channel these feelings onto math. Parents can say something like, “Just as you feel in this situation, you can feel the same way during math. Imagine what it feels like to be a strong, confident math person. You are that person.”
Doing so shifts the mindset, takes the energy off the anxiety, and turns it to the positive, which is highly motivating. With the warrior attitude, students can attack the problem or attack the test, instead of being afraid of them. It is hard to be afraid and be a warrior at the same time. Practicing this mindfulness readies students for work and success.
Once this enthusiasm is in place, students should focus on the problems at hand and see themselves as mathematicians or scientists who actively engage in solving problems. They should get actively involved and investigate, stopping to pause, ponder, and wonder. These behaviors prompt curiosity, which counters anxiety. Parents can help in this matter by discussing the importance of math in daily life and by sharing how they, too, do serious work. Parents can model working behavior.
Being the strong warrior and an engaged mathematician/scientist is the antithesis of having math anxiety. Once this mindset is in place, students can focus on the math skills with an open mind, exuding confidence, hope, and interest, which will raise academic achievement and self-confidence.
Matthew Mandelbaum and Jamie Cohen are parents and learning specialists and are the creators of Jumping Joey’s Number Line. Jumping Joey’s Number Line is an innovative, child-centered, multi-sensory arithmetic learning system for Pre-K through Elementary. Jumping Joey’s Number Line fosters enjoyable, engaging, effective and efficient mathematical experiences, where students are motivated and build a strong math foundation with long-term understanding. Students feel successful and excited about learning opportunities, and confident in their emerging abilities. Visit
Copyright 2011 Matthew G. Mandelbaum/Jamie Cohen.  Reprinted with permission.
Matthew Mandelbaum
Managing Partner
PsySoEd Dynamics, LLC
220 Manhattan Avenue, Suite 2U
New York, NY 10025