When students show signs of math anxiety they should be taught relaxation techniques and other steps aimed to reduce their worries.

Last year we met a 7-year-old girl we’ll call Zoey. A shy second grader who excelled at reading, Zoey’s parents and teachers were concerned about Zoey’s poor performance in math and her reluctance to do her math homework. What intrigued us was a passing comment mom made during the intake interview: Zoey frequently complained of stomachaches during school, landing her in the nurse’s office almost daily. The nurse could never find a reason for Zoey’s pains, and after a quick check-up would send a happy Zoey back to class.

What the teachers and nurse missed was that Zoey’s pains were getting her out of math class; nobody at the school considered Zoey might be experiencing math anxiety.

Common wisdom is that math anxiety doesn’t affect children before sixth grade. On the contrary, our research demonstrates that children as young as first grade report math anxiety symptoms. Worse, this math anxiety affects their ability to learn math. Sadly, Zoey’s story isn’t unique.

Math anxiety refers to feelings of tension and fear that interfere with solving mathematical problems in everyday life and school settings. Math anxiety involves physiological arousal (e.g., sweaty palms, racing heart), negative thoughts (e.g., “I am just not a math person.”), escape and/or avoidance behaviors (e.g., developing pains to get out of math class), and, when the individual cannot escape the situation, poor performance. Sound like Zoey? Yes, and between 66-90% of Americans, some reports say.

The negative impacts of math anxiety are enormous. Math-anxious students do not see the value of math for everyday life, they participate — and learn — less in math classes, receive lower grades in math, and take fewer math classes in high school and college. These patterns are especially troubling given that mathematical proficiency is becoming increasingly important for full economic opportunity and meaningful participation in society. Consider that only one-third of high school seniors in the U.S. have the mathematical proficiency to compete in a global market and respond to global challenges.

Where are we going wrong?

Continue reading about how to help students with math anxiety.

math anxiety