You don’t have to dig deep to uncover the negative feelings many people have about math. In one survey of U.S. adults, 93% reported they felt some apprehensiveness about the subject.
In fact, “math anxiety” is so common that it has been studied for seven decades, says Jalisha Jenifer, the lead author of a new study that shows how the problem affects even top students.
Math anxiety is defined as “a feeling of tension and anxiety that interferes with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in … ordinary life and academic situations,” according to the Mathematics Anxiety Rating Scale, an instrument commonly used to measure math anxiety.
Research has found varying levels of math anxiety depending on the population studied and how it is measured. One oft-cited study from 2009 estimates that 17 percent of the general U.S. population has “high levels of mathematics anxiety.” Some research shows girls report more math anxiety than boys, although there is no difference in actual math performance between genders.
Math anxiety can impair students’ abilities and persist into adulthood. But experts say teachers and parents can help children develop a more positive math identity.
What Causes Math Anxiety
When children begin school, they are typically excited to learn about math, says Trena Wilkerson, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. A number of factors, including the pressure of doing math quickly, can cause anxiety to begin.
Students as young as 7 show signs of math anxiety, “depending on how much testing is taking place,” says Ann Dowker, a lecturer at the University of Oxford and the lead researcher on a 2016 meta-study on the subject.
Experts say that in math, unlike most other subjects, speed plays a big role in how competent students feel. Being slower than peers at solving problems can trigger anxiety.
“When people say they aren’t good at math, often they mean they aren’t fast at math,” says Dowker. Students who don’t keep up with their classmates may start avoiding math, leading to a “vicious circle” of less practice and declining skills.
Attention is another factor, Dowker says. Because math is much more dependent on working memory than some other subjects, students can become lost if their minds wander during a lesson.
And because both parents and teachers may remember their own math anxieties, they have to be particularly careful about transferring those feelings to children, Wilkerson says.
When left unaddressed, math anxiety can snowball and continue into college and beyond.
Jenifer, a postdoctoral research fellow at Barnard College, found that even some college students who had chosen to take Advanced Placement calculus suffered from math anxiety. Her study showed that these students avoided study strategies that were harder and concentrated instead on reading their textbook or solving easier problems.
Although Jenifer’s’ work is the first to study high-achievers, she says the results didn’t surprise her. She surmises that these students’ anxiety probably began in elementary school and compounded over time.
Rethinking Math Instruction to Reduce Anxiety
Despite a lot of studies proving math anxiety exists, there’s less research on how to prevent or reverse this issue. Some studies show that having students discuss or write about their anxiety before a test can reduce the negative effects and break a cycle where anxiety leads to worsening results.
For students with high anxiety, one-on-one tutoring was also shown to have helped.
In the classroom, some teachers are using strategies to take the pressure off and make math more relevant to students.
When Desiree Harrison moved from teaching middle school math to third grade, students’ reactions to math caused her to rethink how she presented the subject. The first thing she did was eliminate timed tests.
As she got to know her students, Harrison, who is now an instructional coach at Forest Elementary School in Farmington Hills, Michigan, showed them how math played a role in their interests, from sports to cooking to fashion design. “Instead of focusing on the subject first, I focused on the child,” she says.
Lorie Huff, the director of K-12 mathematics for Fayetteville Public Schools in Arkansas, says when she taught, she de-emphasized the importance of getting the right answer for a problem and instead asked students to prove their answer in three different ways. And she, too, worked to connect the learning to students’ lives.
“If you can’t explain how students will use (math) in real life, you probably shouldn’t be teaching it,” she says.
How Parents Can Help
Helping children overcome math anxiety can be challenging for parents who don’t feel comfortable with math themselves. Huff remembers an after-school program she ran where parents were required to attend with their children. After five weeks, one father admitted to her that this was the first time math made sense to him.
But even parents who have math anxiety can help their kids.
The Maths Anxiety Trust, a British nonprofit that seeks to address the problem, suggests parents let their children know they don’t have to be perfect in math.
It’s fine to acknowledge that some math problems are difficult and don’t lend themselves to easy answers, Jenifer says. Parents can tell their children, “It’s OK to find math challenging.” Teach your children to welcome new challenges, and show them how they can learn from their mistakes.
Let your child know that there is more than one way to answer a particular problem, says Harrison, and encourage them to explore different solutions.
Experts say parents can also encourage children by showing them how math is used in many everyday interactions, from shopping to planning a garden, and allowing them to count and add figures themselves.
Harrison, who had math anxiety growing up, says avoiding negativity (like declaring that you or your child are “not math people”) is important. She hosts the podcast, Kids Math Talk, to promote positive conversation among parents and educators around math.
Even if parents can’t help their children with a particular topic, they can encourage them to persevere and access other people or online sites, says Wilkerson. You want to help students develop a positive math identity, she says, because “we know everybody can do math.”
More from U.S. News