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Stopping the Spread of Math Anxiety: Three Messaging Strategies for Elementary School Teachers

By Karyn Lewis | January 2, 2018


Karyn
Lewis
Karyn Lewis is a senior researcher at Education Northwest. She works on a diverse range of projects related to science education, educational equity, college access, and social-emotional learning and development.

Your palms sweat, your heart races, and your stomach clenches. You feel apprehensive and tense, maybe even afraid.

Math has this effect on many people--even young children--all around the world. In fact, this phenomenon is so common, it has a name: math anxiety.

Math anxiety goes beyond simply disliking math, and it's not the same as just having poor math skills. Rather, math anxiety is an acutely negative emotional response to situations that involve math.i

Math anxiety can develop in the very early grades, often because of the negative messages about math that children pick up from the adults in their life.

Put another way, adults' math attitudes make a difference.

Research shows that teachers unintentionally transmit their own attitudes about math to their students. This means teachers who have math anxiety can pass it on to their students, which can impact students' math performance.ii

This underscores an important point: Educators need to be especially mindful about math-related messages they convey to youth.

Here are three messaging strategies for elementary educators to keep in mind:

  1. Perceptions about who is "supposed to be good at math" and the notion that people who are good at math are just "born that way" can be harmful. These stereotypes about math can prevent girls and students of color from developing an interest in math--and fuel math anxiety.iii
  2. Avoid the temptation to comfort or console.iv Instead, acknowledge the difficulty, express confidence in the student, and offer strategies for overcoming the math-related challenge.
  3. Create a classroom culture that normalizes struggles and celebrates mistakes.v This ties in with the idea of a growth mindset, that is, believing that your abilities can change over time because of effort, perseverance, and practice.

Besides just being an uncomfortable experience, math anxiety is a problem because it disrupts brain function. Specifically, it interferes with working memory, which is necessary for holding concepts in your mind and manipulating information.

This means math anxiety robs the brain of cognitive capacity that could be used to solve the math problem at hand.vi

In this way, math anxiety undercuts math ability. It can also trigger math avoidance, which can lead to poor preparation, and the end result is often worse performance--which further exacerbates math anxiety.vii

This reciprocal cycle can have long-term consequences. For example, avoiding math shuts down many (often lucrative) career paths for young adults.viii

Regardless of how we feel about it, math is an important part of daily life for us all. So, when teachers use the strategies listed above to help students tame their math anxiety, they are making a difference in the classroom--and beyond.

Watch and share: Start a conversation about stopping the spread of math anxiety at your school.


References

  • i Ashcraft, M. H. (2002). Math anxiety: Personal, educational, and cognitive consequences. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(5), 181-185
  • ii Beilock, S. L., Gunderson, E. A., Ramirez, G., & Levine, S. C. (2010). Female teachers' math anxiety affects girls' math achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(5), 1860-1863.
  • iii Cheryan, S., Master, A., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2015). Cultural stereotypes as gatekeepers: Increasing girls' interest in computer science and engineering by diversifying stereotypes. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, Art. 49.
  • iv Rattan, A., Good, C., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). "It's ok--not everyone can be good at math": Instructors with an entity theory comfort (and demotivate) students. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(3), 731-737.
  • v Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets that promote resilience: When students believe that personal characteristics can be developed. Educational Psychologist, 47(4), 302-314. http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ983023
  • vi Ashcraft, M. H., & Kirk, E. P. (2001). The relationships among working memory, math anxiety, and performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130(2), 224-237.
  • vii Ma, X. (1997). Reciprocal relationships between attitude toward mathematics and achievement in mathematics. Journal of Educational Research, 90(4), 221-229. http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ546700
  • viii Ashcraft, M. H. (2002). Math anxiety: Personal, educational, and cognitive consequences. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(5), 181-185