Ways to Relax and Overcome Math Anxiety

What Can We Do About our Child’s Math Anxiety?

I often have parents sign up their children for math tutoring due to concerns over the child’s math anxiety–which of course has a negative effect on math learning. Today I’ll share some of the advice I’ve given in these situations to parents and children

Take a Break!

Really? Does that sound too easy? How is a child supposed to learn if you back off the pressure? Here are some thoughts:

  • If you are stuck on a math assignment, leave the math work, and go do something totally different. When you come back, you’ll often find that the difficult question is now reasonably easy. By leaving the work for a while, your brain will subconsciously keep working on the problem, but more important, by doing something totally different, you will relax and de-stress, and come back to the problem with a fresh outlook and much less anxiety.
  • When a child finds math difficult and becomes anxious, I would suggest doing only a few minutes at a time, then take a brain break (doing some short activity that is fun and relaxing, or some activity that you need to do anyway, that doesn’t take “brain work,” such as going for a walk around the block, doing some stretches or  exercises, tidying up, drawing a picture or coloring, having a snack, or taking a shower. Then come back to the work and repeat the procedure.
  • Try doing “math” for no more than 25 minutes at a time, then take a 5 to 10 minute break before returning to it. If still feeling stressed, shorten the time to 15 minutes math and a 5 minute break. Even though it may seem that the math homework time is being stretched out, you will actually be able to do the work more quickly and accurately while you are doing it, and you will feel much more relaxed and less stressed and will retain the information better.
  • If you have reached the point of feeling really stressed, take a longer break, such as 30 minutes or an hour, or even until the next morning (but don’t put it off much longer than that), and do something that really distracts your mind from the math. Then you can return for a fresh start. You may need to review the work you have already done, but that will only take a few minutes and your brain will quickly get into gear for the math again.
  • Sadly, one can’t usually get up and go do something else during an exam, but at least in the exam, you can still do the “easy” questions first, and they will often jog your mind for the tough questions. Even in an exam situation, you can close your eyes, stretch, rest your head on the desk for a couple minutes, draw a couple doodles, hum your favourite song in your mind, or whatever helps you relax. You might also ask the teacher to divide the test into sections and only give the child one section at a time, starting with the easiest. This will allow the child to get up and take a break before returning to do more since the child hasn’t yet seen the rest of the test and thus won’t have a chance to sneak off and get help or check the textbook.

Keep it Simple!

Some textbooks and/or curriculums and/or classroom teachers offer a variety of approaches to a particular concept. While this can be very helpful as it provides for different learning styles and background experience, and also allows children who are especially creative or independent learners to do lots of exploration, it can be frustrating for a child who is already anxious about math. My feeling is this: – try the simplest/standard method. – if the child is having difficulty with the simple method, try one or more of the other methods, find one that the child “gets” and do

My feeling is this: Try the method you think will be easiest for your child to handle–based on your knowledge of how your child learns best, in math of course but also in other subject areas. You may need to experiment a little. Try one method and watch carefully for how your child responds. If the child catches on quickly, great. If not, take a break to allow your child to relax, then try another method. Do this until you find one that the child “gets” and then do lots of practice with it.

Then, when the child understands and is comfortable with that approach, you can experiment with other approaches, especially if the child now finds the concept interesting or intriguing and wants to explore it. Note: It is wise to have your child at least learn the “standard” (most commonly used) method, as in the future, it will no doubt come up as a basic foundation for more advanced math, and will also come up in real life math.

Create Word Problems From the Start

It is also wise to introduce word problems right from the start. Even when introducing such basics as counting and simple math facts, think of them in terms of experiences in real life so that the concept makes clear, concrete sense to the child rather than being some difficult, hazy theory to which the child can’t relate. Furthermore, as math becomes more difficult, more and more word problems will be introduced, so by using them right from the start, the child will be comfortable with them. Even before the child can read, you can easily create word problems and discuss them with your child. Just relate them to your child’s own experience. For example: “If I gave you 3 cookies for dessert, and you ate two of them, how many would you have left for a snack later? … Hmm… How can we figure that out? Should we add or subtract? Why should we subtract? What method could we use? Finger counting? Use our ruler for a number line? Draw a picture? …”

If you are using written word problems, together circle or underline the key numbers/facts in the problem, Also circle or underline the “key words” in the problem, and discuss what kind of problem it is. For example, the phrase “in all” is a signal to add; “how many are left?” is a signal to subtract. If in doubt, draw little pictures to illustrate the problem–or even get some cookies and make it a real life situation–a very effective way to learn!

Encourage your child to create his own word problems, and guide you through them, too! Teaching something just learned is one of the most effective ways to ensure the learning will “stick” and it also shows you whether or not the child has really understood the process.

Also Create Equations From the Start

Once you’ve discussed a word problem, turn it into an equation. This approach can be much more effective than simply giving the child a list of equations to solve. When the child creates the equation (based on the word problem), his understanding and use of math will be much more effective. He also wanted to solve the problems “in his head” and was hesitant to say the equations before giving the answer. It is really important that he expresses the equation, as word problems start to become more complex in grade 3 math, and he needs to be able to work them out “step by step.” I went over a couple of things with him: – circle or underline the key numbers in the problem – also circle or underline the ”

Sometimes a child who is anxious will want to solve the problem “in her head” and be hesitant to say the equation before giving the answer. It is really important that she expresses the equation out loud, and also writes it down–even if she can’t read or write yet, she could write it as little sketches and you could introduce plus (+), minus (-) and equal (=) signs. Using as many senses as possible will really help the child learn. Also, as word problems start to become more complex in later math, she needs to be able to work them out “step by step” and starting right away, in the early stages, will make that easier and less stressful. If your child is already anxious and stressful, go back to the simplest arithmetic concepts and review them, using these methods, creating a new, strong foundation (it might also demonstrate some “gaps” in the child’s learning which you can resolve before moving on).

Math Fact Learning Suggestions

Some children can memorize and quickly write down the facts on a timed quiz, but when it comes to putting them into practical use in an equation or word problem, they find it difficult to remember the facts, as they are now working through a multiple-step process, which is more complicated. Other children have great difficulty just memorizing the facts, not to mention actually using them in practical ways.

It is important for children to practice basic math facts and concepts in equations and word problems rather than just in timed quizzes or flashcards. In fact, time quizzes can be very stressful for many children. I personally think timed quizzes should be reserved for children who enjoy them and who find memorization and repetition easy.

For other children, there are a variety of ways to help them learn the basics without so much stress. Some examples:

  • use of different sense methods such as “finger writing” on a textured surface;
  • close eyes and “picturing” the facts or spelling in the mind;
  • say the entire fact aloud (not just the answer);
  • listen to mom or someone else say the full fact aloud;
  • draw little sketches to go with facts being struggled with;
  • create entertaining/funny stories that involve the fact

Oh! One more thing. If you want to practice “number facts” in some of the ways I’ve suggested, it works much better to just do 10 minutes or so daily, rather than 30 minutes twice a week or 60 minutes once a week. Frequent, short practice sections move short term memory into long-term more efficiently. For lots more ideas on how to learn math facts (and concepts, too), check out my Easy to Learn math booklets.

And Don’t Forget Real-Life Math! It’s so Important!

It is very helpful indeed to watch for opportunities in “real life” situations, to do addition and subtraction (and then more advanced math, of course). For example:

  • when you are taking a road trip, get a map that shows distances between towns and add up the distance from one town to another.
  • if you are baking an apple pie and doubling the recipe, and it calls for 8 apples, ask what 8+8 (or 2×8) is, then ask your child to count out that many from the apple box.
  • if you are having a plate of cookies for supper, and there are 8 cookies to start with, just casually ask how many will be left after everyone in the family has had one–and if there will be enough for everyone to have a second cookie.

These kinds of “real life” experiences come up all the time; just keep an eye out for them, and use them in a casual way. Include the whole family in these math activities. Make them like a game. Older family members will enjoy it, and younger siblings will also love these games and they will get started on math without any formal teaching!

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