Easing Your Child's Math Anxiety

Teachers and Parents Play an Important Role in Helping Students Succeed

DALLAS (July 14, 2011) – For a lot of students, no class conjures up feelings of anxiety more than math class. Sometimes just walking into a math classroom is enough to cause distress. Math anxious kids aren’t always just ‘stressed out’ or dislike math; many feel they are unable to succeed in mathematics. They may have struggled in the past and are convinced they’ll always have trouble.

Signs of math anxiety
“Math anxiety is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Holly Larsson, a math teacher at McKinney North High School in McKinney, Texas. “These students are the first to just come right out and tell you they are not good in math and just cannot do it. They’re more likely not to have their homework done and admit they do not study for tests properly by reworking problems because they’re already convinced they’ll fail.”

Students who exhibit math anxiety often appear lethargic in class because they are afraid to take a chance for fear of being wrong. “These students appear anxious about getting an incorrect answer, and even worse, saying an incorrect answer,” says Jennifer Wilson, a mathematics teacher at Northwest Rankin High School in Flowood, Miss., and an instructor for the Teachers Teaching with Technology™ (T³™) professional development organization from Texas Instruments. “They would rather sit and not do anything than work and be wrong.”

The focus on getting that one correct answer to a math problem can put a lot of pressure on kids, according to Chris Monahan, a retired math teacher and past president of the New York State Math Teachers' Association. “What’s missing is, that very often, there are multiple ways of solving a problem, and learning takes place from exploring these different avenues,” he says.

How teachers are combating math anxiety
In a recent EducationWeek article, Dr. Judy Willis, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based neurologist, former middle school teacher, and author of the 2010 book Learning to Love Math, says the key to helping students learn to not fear math is “to get students to expose faulty foundational knowledge, which they can only do if they make mistakes and participate.”*

To fight math anxiety, teachers are creating classroom environments where all students feel free to share answers, right and wrong. In part, they are using interactive classroom technology to help students explore and analyze mathematics concepts in a non-threatening manner.

Wilson says that creating an interactive classroom using learning tools from Texas Instruments, such as TI-Nspire™ handhelds and the TI-Nspire™ Navigator™ System, contributes to relieving student’s anxieties about math. “I’m able to wirelessly send questions to all students’ calculators and they can respond anonymously which makes them braver about sending in an answer.”

Math anxious students may need more help visualizing the concepts being taught, according to Larsson. “Using a graphing calculator, students can get a more visual look at the math and gain a better understanding. For every ‘ah ha’ moment students can have by exploring math concepts, a little more confidence is built, and they will be more willing and open to keep trying to learn.”

In addition to classroom work, teachers are helping students with study skills, test-taking tactics and many also post lessons and notes online for students to access for homework and test preparation.

“Students may not know how to study for math tests, and teaching them these skills really helps them get over their fear,” says Carlo Trafficante, a mathematics teacher at Austintown Fitch High School in Youngstown, Ohio.

Having access to the teacher’s classroom notes online after class can help math anxious students avoid missing parts of the lesson while trying to copy down everything said in class, and provide a way for students to review lessons later. Trafficante records daily class lessons using his interactive whiteboard and posts them online so students can re-watch lessons on their own as needed.

Another helpful means to combating math anxiety is providing second-chance tests. Wilson says, “I give some of the most challenging tests in our school, but because students know that our ultimate goal is for them to learn mathematics, they know I will give them an opportunity to show me what they have learned if they do not do well on their test.”

Teachers’ tips for parents
Parents uncomfortable with math can pass negative feelings on to their children. Many math teachers say that math anxious kids are more likely to say, “My mom and dad are not good at math so neither am I.”

Wilson says, “Whatever you do, try not to tell your child that you can’t do math or that you can’t help. Telling your child you can’t do math tacitly gives them permission to not be successful.”

Wilson and other teachers suggest parents encourage their children in mathematics by letting them know that it may not always be easy, but that they can do it. “Celebrate small gains,” suggests Monahan, who also is an instructor for the T³™ professional development organization. “Given that many parents do not have the background to help their students with their math homework, their support for scoring a few points higher than usual is important for their child’s success.”

Math teachers recommend parents encourage their kids to see the teacher for help outside of the classroom and find someone else to help outside of school if needed.

“Get a tutor for your child who is great at math and enjoys it and also find out what other support programs they have in school,” says Pat Flynn, a mathematics teacher at Olathe East High School. Flynn’s school has a recitation hour where students are assigned into groups where they work together on their math homework for that day. “This is very helpful because each student sees that they are not the only one having trouble,” he says. Flynn also is a T³™ instructor.

With the help of teachers, encouragement from parents and math tutors, and knowing they’re not the only ones anxious about math, more kids, particularly those practicing their skills using interactive classroom technology, are more likely to say, ‘This is math, and I understand it. I can do it.’

For more information on TI-Nspire technology and resources, visit http://education.ti.com/tinspire.

*“Researchers Probe Cause of Math Anxiety, by Sarah D. Sparks, EducationWeek, May 16, 2011 (online) http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2011/05/18/31math_ep.h30.html

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About Texas Instruments
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