Saturday, April 6, 2013

Math Anxiety: What it is and How to Relieve its Stress and Impact

The title alone is making me nervous and I LIKED math!!  But don't worry.... help is here!

Research shows that the greatest anxiety is experienced anticipating math and not actually doing it. Experts also find that "reframing" the anxiety (much more below) will help.

So, before tackling the mammoth math monster, let's laugh at some math anxiety images, 'reframe' and then deal with the issue.

Calvin and Hobbes Math
by Bill Watterson

While the concept of math anxiety is not new, there now studies supporting how 'real' it is and how it creates 'real' neurological responses in the brain.
This past October (10/31/2012) in the UChicago News ("When people worry about math, the brain feels the pain") William Harms  reported on work done by Sian Beilock, (professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and a leading expert on math anxiety) and her student Ian Lyons (postdoctoral scholar at Western University in Ontario, Canada),  noting that:
"...mathematics anxiety can prompt a response in the brain similar to when a person experiences physical pain...
Using brain scans, scholars determined that the brain areas active when highly math-anxious people prepare to do math overlap with the same brain areas that register the threat of bodily harm—and in some cases, physical pain.
Surprisingly, the researchers found it was the anticipation of having to do math, and not actually doing math itself... “The brain activation does not happen during math performance, suggesting that it is not the math itself that hurts; rather the anticipation of math is painful...”
The current work is also consistent with other research from Beilock and Lyons... Beilock’s work, supported by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education, has also shown that mathematics anxiety can begin as early as first grade, and that female elementary school teachers often transmit their math anxiety to their female students.
This latest study points to the value of seeing math anxiety not just as a proxy for poor math ability, but as an indication there can be a real, negative psychological reaction to the prospect of doing math. 
Rather than simply piling on math homework for students who are anxious about math, students need active help to become more comfortable with the subject, Beilock said. Beilock’s work has shown, for instance, that reframing and writing about math anxieties before a test can reduce one’s worries and lead to better performance.
[Note: Beilock is the author of the best-selling book about stress and performance, Choke: What The Secrets Of The Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To.]

In an earlier article (Math anxiety causes trouble for students as early as first grade") Harms reported on earlier studies by Beilock which found that,
Worries about math can disrupt working memory, which student could otherwise use to succeed...working memory [is] a kind of 'mental scratchpad' that allows us to 'work' with whatever information is temporarily flowing though's especially important when we have to do a math problem and juggle numbers in our head.
The findings of Beilock, Gerardo Ramirez, Elizabeth Gunderson and Susan Levine - published in the article Math Anxiety, Working Memory and Math Achievement in Early Elementary School, in early preview on the website of the Journal of Cognition and Development, the authors noted that:
"Early math anxiety may lead to a snowball effect that exerts an increasing cost on math achievement by changing students' attitudes and motivational approaches towards math, increasing math avoidance, and ultimately reducing math competence.
Adding hope, however,  the authors noted that:
"Fortunately, there is hope for alleviating the negative impact of math anxiety on math achievement. When anxiety is regulated or reframed, students often see a marked increase in their math performance... One way to reframe anxiety is to have students write about their worries regarding math ahead of time.
The researchers further speculated that for younger students, expressive picture drawing (in place of writing) may help them reframe and more effectively reduce the stress and burdens felt by their anxieties towards math.

1. Minimize rote memorization by making math meaningful. Here are some suggestions:
  • Play math and counting games with your kids even before they get to school.  This will help them be much more comfortable with numbers and number concepts.
  • When you go shopping, before entering the store give your kids some "spending money" helping learn the value of money while figuring out 'how much' of various items they can afford that trip.
  • Provide real life puzzles involving math such as how to divide an apple, cookie or pie evenly; how early you have to get up if it takes 15 minutes to shower, 10 minutes to get dressed, 15 minutes to grab breakfast, etc.  These 'games' and puzzles help remove the rote memorizing math seems to entail for many, and becomes involving, creative.  For more see this link: How to Make Learning Math Fun
  • Help kids 're-tile' the classroom or playroom floor using different shaped tiles (this can be done when learning about shapes, learning about remainders, geometry, area, etc.)
  • Integrate math with great story-telling by having kids create comics and graphic novels (creating the panels and pages involves 'area', shapes,etc.).
  • Peanuts Cartoon Math
    by Charles Schulz
  • Build bridges and structures
  • For ratios, proportions, charts and graphing have kids design surveys to ask other classes and then learn to chart the responses - or during political campaigns have them do surveys they can report on.
      Calvin and Hobbes
      By Bill Wateterson
TEACHERS: For more on this read Lockhart's Lament where he gives other examples of making math meaningful.
2. Reframe the math anxiety:
  • Parents and teachers might show humorous math-anxiety cartoons, help kids draw their own, talk about the anxiety before approaching new math topics, lessons and math tests.
  • Math Curse  an awesome picture book by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith is a super way to show how math is everywhere and you don't need to be a math 'wiz' to deal with it.  It is also deals with math anxiety in a creative way and is a great book for math students of all ages.  Here is a YouTube trailer for the book:
  • Talk about math and other anxieties and how they can be overcome. Here is a clip of the"quicksand" scene from The Replacements as Gene Hackman  clearly illustrates 'reframing'.  In this clip the coach is trying to help his players overcome their fears to help them be better players and not freeze like deer in headlights:
  • Help kids become more aware of their feelings. Help them recognize when they're getting anxious and try 'calming exercises' (this will clearly mean different things for different kids)  BEFORE math study and math homework.
  • Create a comfortable, empowering place to do math work/homework.
3. Try different teaching modes, lessons and techniques - we don't all learn one way. Many students have trouble with math instruction because the teaching of abstract concepts is done almost exclusively through verbal modes.
  • There are manipulatives and pictures available but workbooks and textbooks are verbally directed.  
  • There are wonderful online computer games that can help reinforce math concepts that are not verbally laden. These games and projects such as bridge- building and other hands-on projects help kids conceptualize important math concepts.
  • Here is a clip of non-verbal math games and instruction that is solely non-verbal - image and visually literate based. It is put out by MIND Research Institute and the presentation is compelling. We are only at the beginning of multi-medial and visually driven learning and MIND research is helping to provide options and multi-modal reinforcement of learning materials.

MIND Research is a company that has developed an impressive array of computer games that illustrate various math principles. 270,000 students as of 8/2020 and close to 1,000 schools in 20 states (as of 8/2010). The key is the instructional software and the interaction of the student with the software. ST Math Fluency uses a visual approach to teach math facts for students to reach an automatic retrieval / performance level.

For additional links, motivational quotes and advice on general test taking please go to Test Taking Tips.

To help kids laugh and minimize their anxiety - below are Calvin and Hobbes links to help (taken from Statistical Analysis and Sample Size
To help kids laugh and minimize their anxiety - below are Peanuts links to help (taken from
  •  March 6,  1983:  Doing Math in your sleep. I think the only answer that works is Z equals zero but check me on that.  (And you'd get 0/0 so that's not so great)
  • June 9,  1983: An unexpected report card
  • June 25, 1983: Sometimes the only way to gain unique knowledge is to figure it out yourself the long way
  • Nov 15, 1983: Great one for teachers on the importance of wait time
  • Dec 7, 1983 : The terrors of multiplying 9 by 12
  • Dec 9, 1983: On how to estimate the dumb things you've done
  • Dec 13, 1983: More is better! 
Before closing, I want to share one more image with you:
Clearly, one more way to reduce math anxiety  is to both make students comfortable with numbers and to take the fear of the unknown, particularly the unknown math test out of the equations.  Preparation and previewing can be a huge help.
By Bill Watterson found at
These are just a few ways of addressing and relieving math anxiety. 
I thank you for your visit and hope you'll share your own math-anxiety experiences and coping mechanisms in the comments.


  1. Math is always a challenge for students however, I found that context matters a lot when teaching it. If students see why it is useful, they tend to buy into it.

  2. Great post! I put it on Facebook and the walls of the math teachers I know.

  3. Incredible post on Maths anxiety! Adored the cartoon that Maths is a religion! That's an interesting twist!

  4. Another wonderfully informative post for M ~ excellent and great ideas to ease the math anxiety or any anxiety ~ ^_^

  5. Oh GAWD! I even had Math Anxiety when I was teaching grade 4's!!! I think it came from all that rote type of learning when I was young. Now if I could go back to school and do it again, I'm sure I'd GET it! lol

    abcw team

  6. I was pretty worried with my oldest and math. It was taking him a long time to figure out problems. When we had conferences his teacher said he does great in it. He's just slow with it because he wants to make sure all the problems are right. He's only in 1st grade. I worried too much it seems.

  7. As someone who has never had math anxiety - I love math, it makes me feel comfortable and happy - this was really eye-opening. The idea that for some students math is actually painful is a bit of a revelation!

    When I was very little I played "school" with an older cousin. She pretended to teach me math (although it was just nonsense.) No matter what I said she'd say "NO! You're wrong!" and pretend to hit me with a ruler. Maybe that's how she felt.

  8. I love math - my anxiety isn't just around math, though, it's all tests of all subjects. Princess Nagger tends to have the same brain-freeze anxiety when it comes to taking a test - but more so with math, so maybe it's a math anxiety (even though she's good at math when she's not anxious!) :) Awesome informative (and fun) post, Meryl! :)

    Monday Madness saved by Twitter Honor, Menopausal Mother Nature and Doppelgänger Fun: Random Tuesday Thoughts Rebel

  9. as you know, I talked about math this week.
    My daughter used to have mild math anxiety, but she's figured out that, e.g. division is the same thing as multiplication, just in a different order. Pie charts are great for fractions.

    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  10. It's really weird. When I was in high school, math drove me nuts. When I went to college 20 years after high school, math became totally easy.

  11. While the humor is funny enough, my particular math anxiety would be better relieved/resolved by hard facts about numbers that would enable me to solve equations ~:) Still I'm sharing this with my kids who have toddlers.

  12. Hi Meryl. I like your cartoons and I like math. I had algebra and geometry, which I preferred to arithmetic. I don't know if that is the kind of math you mean, but that's what we did at high school. Thanks for sharing.
    Wil, ABCW Team.

  13. I wish that I could start over and learn math. Kate, ABC Team

  14. I actually love math, but the article and cartoons are cute

  15. Very funny... I do like math, yet this is a great post.

  16. Wow, interesting concept--that it's the anticipation more than the doing of math. Thanks for sharing.

  17. This is a great post. My husband had Math Anxiety all through school, but now that he's older and enrolled in college, he's learning to love it.

    I'm visiting today from Super Sunday Sync. :)

  18. giggle, this may help our grandchildren. My husband is a math whiz ( he used to tutor calculus to the college kids a few years ago) I get by but hate math, love the calculator though ha, ha. Thank you for sharing your lovely blog at the Thursday Favorite Things blog hop xo

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