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What is Math Anxiety and How to Overcome it

With specific teaching methods and approaches towards math, we can help children overcome math anxiety. (Image by Shutterstock/Representational)

With specific teaching methods and approaches towards math, we can help children overcome math anxiety. (Image by Shutterstock/Representational)

Of many students rated to be bad at math, many could be suffering from math anxiety which is a solvable problem. Here's all you need to know about it

Fear of maths is a real phenomenon among school children, and it often manifests strongly in middle school or class 6 onwards. Many students in the age-group say that they either are nervous about or afraid of maths. Many of them say that they cannot solve a question during a test or in front of others, which they can quickly solve otherwise. At times students claim that though they have understood the concept well, they find it difficult to solve a question related to it.

Most of such students are rated to be bad at math, however, more often than not in such cases, they are just unable to perform at math due to the stress and pressure, which they may have unknowingly developed due to external factors.

Recently, UK’s Cambridge University interviewed 12,700 primary and secondary students to explore maths anxiety by UK’s Cambridge University. The result showed that children as young as six feel fear, rage, and despair due to “mathematics anxiety”, a condition that can cause physical symptoms and behaviour problems in class. They further noted that math anxiety should be treated as a “real concern” because of its damage to a child’s learning.

Commonly, math anxiety can be seen as an adverse emotional reaction to math and can cause feelings of tension, apprehension or fear when confronted with a math problem. The emotions usually range from tensed or stress to dislike to despair and rage.

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Occasionally, the person might even become unwilling even to try and do math due to these emotions. Hence, it is imperative to timely identify that a child has math anxiety and seek support to help with it so that he/she doesn’t grow up to be math-fearing individuals.

Math Anxiety v/s Dyscalculia

We should not confuse math anxiety with dyscalculia, a math-based learning disability, an inability to process numbers. In dyscalculia, a child has a vague number sense, due to which he has trouble understanding math. On the other hand, math anxiety is the psychological barrier induced by stress due to which one cannot do the math, despite having know-how. Though people with dyscalculia do have some math anxiety symptoms, it is crucial to differentiate between them and provide the child with proper guidance accordingly.

Understanding factors causing math anxiety

There are a lot of social factors responsible for inducing math anxiety. A primary reason could be negative associations with math in the early years or even before they started school. Doing the math for fun with parents isn’t a common scenario at home, unlike reading. In the later years, anxiety may be induced through incorrect teaching methods, parental or peer pressure, performance pressure, feeling reprimanded, and many more. Such factors cause unsolicited stress leading the child to lose interest in math or even become averse to studying it.

How can we help children overcome math anxiety

The first step towards helping a child overcome math fear is by letting them know that theirs is a common problem and can be easily solved with some conscious efforts. Parents and teachers must encourage kids to ask questions whenever they feel stuck and show patience while addressing queries and practising resilience if they see kids still struggling and offer guidance.

Another good way to arouse a child’s interest in maths is through games. Games simplify learning and reduce anxiety while simultaneously enabling them to enjoy the subject in a less intimidating environment, where one needn’t worry about being right and wrong, which is the very reason why many edtech firms offer gamified learning solutions for kids. Gamification naturally incites curiosity and makes learning fun.

Parents and teachers should also emphasize the importance of practice, especially while learning maths. Today, parents can leverage a mix of traditional and technology-based learning methods to help their children practice maths in a more enjoyable and relaxed way. Acknowledging a child’s effort in attempting a particular problem irrespective of the level of correctness can also go a long way in encouraging children to adopt a growth mindset while learning mathematics.

With specific teaching methods and approaches towards math, we can help children overcome math anxiety. And the first change in the process would be to acknowledge math anxiety in children and not brush it off as incompetence in math. Creating a nurturing environment and repeated positive reinforcements will go a long way in developing motivation in kids to like math.

In the absence of classroom teaching, to help students cope with doubts and clarifications amidst the pandemic, the Government of India is encouraging use of various learning apps and methods. Recently, CBSE too introduced a practice book for mathematics that promotes critical thinking and problem solving among students, encouraging self-learning. Summing up, educators, parents, siblings, friends – all can play a role in creating a more pleasant and stress-free environment to boost math-confidence in a child. All one needs to do is be a bit more patient, empathic, and encouraging of the child’s requirements for math learning.

— Written by Nirmal Shah. The author is co-founder of Countingwell, a math learning app for kids in middle and high school.

first published:March 14, 2021, 16:48 IST