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Dr. Ken Shore's
Classroom Problem Solver

Math Anxiety

Math, more than any other subject, engenders anxiety and avoidance in students. For many, the mere mention of the "m" word is enough to send their blood pressure skyrocketing. Although experiencing some insecurity about school subjects is normal, for some students the anxiety about math can be extreme and can hamper performance.

The anxious student, convinced of her inability to do math, might avoid the subject or put forth little effort, leaving significant gaps in her math development. Difficulty mounts as she confronts more advanced skills, causing further anxiety and avoidance. What begins as a mild case of math avoidance turns into a severe case of math anxiety.

Students with math anxiety have confidence in only one thing related to math -- that they can't do it. That belief turns into an emotional block, causing a form of mental paralysis. Their brains seem to shut down when a math concept is detected. Fear and anxiety take the place of clear thinking, and the need to avoid looking stupid before peers becomes paramount. Math anxiety can propel a student into a downward spiral. Bewildered by the math concepts, she has difficulty focusing, contributing to further difficulties in understanding. Anxiety increases and confidence declines. The student abandons her efforts to understand and becomes preoccupied with obtaining the right answer.

Unless math anxiety is confronted, it can turn into a permanent block. A teacher can help chip away at this block by providing individualized academic support and bolstering the student's confidence. A simple "you can do it" is not sufficient, however. Rather the teacher needs to prove to the student that she can do it, convincing her -- by exposing her to a variety of successful experiences -- that she is more capable in math than she thinks.

In addition, instruction should move towards a real-life approach to math, with more emphasis on understanding and less on memorization, more on application and less on computation, more on student participation and less on teacher lecture.

Teachers can play a significant role in lessening the math anxiety of their students and helping them approach math with confidence. Perhaps the best antidote to math anxiety is math mastery. The more students understand math concepts, the less anxiety they will experience. Similarly, the better prepared they are for tests, the less likely it is that they will become flustered or block during the exam.


Be aware of the messages about math you convey to students. Just as parents can help shape their children's attitudes towards math, teachers can have a similar impact on their students. If you are anxious about the subject, make sure not to convey your feelings to students. Express confidence in their abilities, telling them that if they stick with it they eventually will catch on.

Be calm and patient. This is especially important for the math-anxious student; the slightest sign of teacher impatience might cause her to shut down completely. Create a climate in which students have no fear of asking a question or offering a wrong answer. Present instructions in a clear, calm manner and give the student time to process the instructions and formulate a response. If you feel yourself becoming impatient while working with a student, try backing off for a while. Your impatience will only increase her anxieties and intensify her confusion. If you find that the student continues to be very anxious despite your calming efforts, take her aside and suggest that she try breathing deeply as a way of lessening her anxiety.

Encourage the student to ask questions. Students with math anxiety often are reluctant to ask questions in class for fear of appearing dumb or being taken to task by the teacher for not listening. Make it clear to your students that you want them to ask questions, and prove it by leaving time at the end of every class for that purpose. Tell students there is no such thing as a dumb question, and explain that their questions help you by indicating where you might not have been clear enough. Even with your encouragement, however, some students still will feel uncomfortable asking questions in class, so make yourself available after class or at the end of the day. Respond positively to a student's question, describing it as a "good question" or an "important point." Make sure not to allow students to ridicule a classmate's questions.

Promote the student's confidence. Students with math anxiety are almost always insecure in their abilities. They might assume they will not understand a math concept or be able to do a problem. That lack of confidence might impair their concentration and hamper their performance. Help reshape negative views towards math by praising their successes and highlighting what they have done well. Back up your words with evidence of their ability to be successful with math. In presenting math work, start with problems they can complete easily and, as they master the easier problems, move on to more difficult ones. Allow students to find alternative routes to solving problems so they learn there is not just one right way to find the answer. The hope is that students will come to view their skills in a more positive light and not be as intimidated at the prospect of tackling math problems.

Help the student make sense of math concepts. Many math-anxious students approach math as a series of procedures to be memorized, not understood. When their memory fails, however, or when a problem falls outside the rules they have memorized, performance falters and anxiety results. Take the mystery out of math by helping students understand the reason behind the rule they are memorizing. In short, teach them the "why" as well as the "how." The better they understand a concept, the more effectively they will retain and apply it.

Use concrete objects to foster understanding. Many students find math concepts abstract and thus hard to understand. Using objects -- what educators call manipulatives -- can help students grasp and visualize concepts in a way that words alone cannot. Objects might include anything that can be counted or conveys quantity or amount -- such as blocks, beads, coins, poker chips, or Cuisenaire rods. Sand and water also can be used to convey amount. As an example, cutting an apple in parts can help students grasp the notion of fractions in a way that worksheets can't. Of course, as the student's understanding grows, she can move from the concrete to the conceptual.

Make math relevant. "Why do we need to do this anyway?" is a common refrain heard from math students. Answer the question by showing them. Demonstrate how the skills they are learning are used in everyday life; how the seemingly disconnected set of facts and procedures relate to the real world. Students will be more comfortable with math concepts if they understand their practical value and learn to apply them. Give them problems that relate to their interests and age level that they might encounter outside of school.

Math math fun. Teachers can use a wide variety of math games to reinforce skills and promote a positive association with math. These can be board games, card games, or games that you or the students create yourselves. Typically easy to play and requiring little time, games help break up classroom routine. Keep games tension-free and relatively non-competitive. Also use the computer to stimulate enthusiasm for math. Many good software programs are available for students of all ages.

Make a special effort to encourage girls in math. Girls are more vulnerable to math anxiety than boys, especially in the middle and high school years. Part of their insecurity might stem from the messages they receive from both parents and teachers. Monitor the messages about math you send girls. Make sure you don't sell girls short by attending more to boys in math class or by suggesting that girls avoid challenging math courses. Rather show confidence in their ability to do math, encourage them to take risks, and give them a chance to compete on a par with the boys in the class.

About Ken Shore

Dr. Kenneth Shore is a psychologist who has worked in various public schools for more than 25 years. He has authored six books and produced a book and video series on bullying for schools and parent organizations called Math Anxiety. Click to read a complete bio. For information on how to obtain his books and videos, go to his Web site.