While the thought of a big math test can make even the most confident student stressed out, for some kids, the feelings associated with math go far beyond garden-variety stress. For these students, a feeling of intense anxiety develops – to the point that they are no longer able to think clearly. But how can parents tell whether their child’s emotions are a real problem or just an excuse to avoid an uncomfortable academic subject?
What Causes Such Stress Over Math?
Is this reaction learned or biological? The answer is two-fold. Brain scans of young children find that those who are who are quick and accurate show a very low level of stress. Those who are slow and less accurate demonstrate a high level of stress in the brain. These early difficulties, even when minor in nature, cause frustration and anxiety later on. It is also true that math anxiety can be a learned behavior. Studies show that teachers and parents can pass their own negative feelings of math to children.
So what should you do if your child experiences math anxiety? First of all, it is important to recognize that the problem will not go away by encouraging your child to “try harder” or “stop worrying”. Instead use the following strategies:
Don’t Let It Slide
Math is the sole subject that is nearly 100% cumulative. Students must have a strong foundation or they will fall behind, lose confidence, and grow to dislike the subject. When you see your child struggling, intervene right away by assisting with homework. You may find that the older your child gets, the less willing he is to work with you. Seek after-school help from the teacher or hire a tutor who can patiently break down concepts, fill in any gaps, and instill confidence.
Watch Your Words
Even if math was difficult for you as a child, don’t harp on your shortcomings by saying, “I was terrible at math, too. It must run in the family.” Instead, focus on what can be changed. The truth is, with practice your child can overcome his or her weakness in math. Adopt the mantra “practice makes permanent”, not “practice makes perfect”. With enough reinforcement, your child will be able to remember the important steps to solve problems.
Do Not Push Advanced Classes
The trend these days is for students to take advanced math classes early on, beginning with Algebra in 7th or 8th grade. This approach is a good one for many students but not for all. Those experiencing significant math anxieties may be further stymied because they feel overwhelmed and under prepared. Although your child may be capable of keeping up, don’t force advanced classes if he or she is not quite ready.
Beware of TEST Anxiety
Sometimes test anxiety in any subject increases when students sit down to take a test knowing they are not fully prepared. The old adage “You can’t study for math” is simply not true. The best way for a student to prepare is to make a practice test and solve the problems as if it were the real exam. This allows the student to know which problems he cannot solve and to practice accordingly. In many instances, proper preparation decreases stress on test day.
Whether negative feelings towards math are biologically rooted or learned, it’s never too late to help your child turn the corner to success.
Ann K. Dolin, M.Ed., is the founder and president of Educational Connections Tutoring and Test Prep in Fairfax, VA and Bethesda, MD. In her award-winning book, Homework Made Simple: Tips, Tools, and Solutions to Stress-Free Homework , Dolin offers proven solutions to help the six key types of students who struggle with homework. Numerous examples and easy-to-implement, fun tips will help make learning less of a chore for the whole family. Learn more at anndolin.com or ectutoring.com.