“I’m not good at math!” “I just don’t get it!” These complaints are familiar to many of us, either because we hear them from our children or because we have memories of expressing them ourselves. In fact, aversion to math due to fear and lack of confidence is a common phenomenon, widely known as “math anxiety”. It affects even the most high-achieving students as early as first grade. Math anxiety at an early age can lead to a snowball effect on a student’s achievement over time, as it often leads to avoidance and then eventually affects math competence.
The good news is that the issue is not with actual student ability. Research shows that when math anxiety is reduced, performance improves. Parents and educators have a key role in helping children become more confident, capable, and successful with math through a few important strategies.
1. Build a Growth Mindset
Whereas children with a fixed mindset believe that we are born with certain talents and skills, children with a growth mindset believe that we can learn and grow in our abilities. Research clearly shows that children with a growth mindset achieve greater academic success. We can build this outlook in our children in a few ways.
First, we must shift our focus from getting correct answers to developing mathematical thinking. Rather than following prescribed steps to get to a solution, students should work with a variety of strategies and pathways to solve a problem. Furthermore, we must encourage children to learn from their mistakes. Rather than being afraid to fail, they should view mistakes as an opportunity to reflect, revise and try again. This way, students will start to see math as something they can work on and improve.
2. Make real-life connections
Young children participate in math activities spontaneously during play. For example, children make comparisons when figuring out who is taller; they sort and classify when putting household items into different baskets during dramatic play; they count to determine how many crackers they have for snack. We can use these real-life situations to engage children in solving mathematical problems. We can further their thinking by asking thoughtful questions, such as “How much taller are you?” or “Will all the vegetables fit in the basket?” or “What if you got 3 more crackers?”. By involving children in mathematics investigations in natural contexts, they develop increasing confidence with knowledge, skills and attitudes needed for math.
3. Promote student interaction
The research shows us that problem solving skills and conceptual understanding increase when students interact with one another. Students should be working, thinking, and talking together while solving math problems. They must be taught how to discuss their solutions with one another by engaging in meaningful “Math Talk”. The purpose of Math Talk is for students to deepen their understanding, by explaining their thinking and giving evidence for their answers. They must explain why their solution works. Through Math Talk, students deepen their understanding by questioning one another, agreeing or disagreeing, and building on one another’s solutions.
“Why Are So Many Students Afraid of Math?” Edutopia, 8 Nov. 2017, www.edutopia.org/discussion/why-are-so-many-students-afraid-math.
Bruce, Catherine D. “Student Interaction in the Math Classroom: Stealing Ideas or Building Understanding.” What Works? Research into Practice, July 2007, pp. 1–4.
Shaffer, Leah. “Lowering Math Anxiety.” Scholastic. https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/conquering-math-anxiety/
Ontario Ministry of Education. (2010). The full-day early learning kindergarten program: 2010–11. Toronto, ON.