4 ideas for overcoming math anxiety

Math anxiety is a real issue in many classrooms. Some kids will tell you they hate math, and that may be true. There are also students in your classroom who feel overly anxious every time you begin math instruction.

Their hands become clammy, their breathing changes, and they may panic. Your students may be feeling anxious about solving problems in math if they exhibit any of these signs:

  • Acting out. If taking out the math books sparks disruptive behavior, students with math anxiety may be trying to create a distraction, hoping you’ll send them out of the room.
  • Subject avoidance. Absences on test days or excuses to leave the classroom may point to math anxiety.
  • Downshifting. Children who feel as though the work is too hard may shut down. To avoid attempting any problem-solving the student may cry, shout, or withdraw into him or herself.
  • No response. Students who stare out the window or ignore you altogether may feel frozen when it comes to answering questions in math.

When your students act out, downshift, and seem to retreat within themselves, try these ideas to help them overcome math anxiety.

Play games

Make learning a game when problem-solving in math.

Talk about problems as challenges or puzzles, and create fun ways to figure them out. Try paired and group work on erasable boards. Model problem-solving in front of your students, and let them model problem-solving for their classmates as well. To reduce anxiety about finding the correct answer, reveal the solution when you present the problem. The goal for students is to discover how to come up with the same answer.

Encourage expression

Anxiety may help students perform better when solving problems. By recognizing the concern for what it is, students can use the feelings associated with it to improve performance.

Ask your students to tackle the math challenges in two steps. First, have them write down what they are worried about. This step pinpoints the fear. Next, have them write, “This is a normal fear, and I can control it.”

Try heterogeneous grouping

Place students in heterogeneous groups when solving math problems. The students in these mixed groups may approach finding a solution in different ways, but that’s part of the process of learning. Ask students to explain the steps they used. There are often many ways to get to an answer, and heterogeneous grouping is an excellent way to illustrate this point.

Growth mindset

The theory of brain plasticity works like this: our brains love challenges, and every successfully completed challenge increases achievement. That’s where growth mindset comes in. If students can convince themselves to get to work and do their best, they may find that not only can they work through math problems, but they also may be successful in answering them correctly.

Be aware that not all of your students may like math. Some have a keen anxiety about solving math problems, but they can defeat their fears with your help.

When students see the relevance of math and how they’ll need practical math skills, they may be able to overcome the anxiety that was holding them back.

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