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How To Deal With Math Anxiety

  • Dr. Gina Gresham Contributing Writer
  • 2006 21 Jun
How To Deal With Math Anxiety

The mere mention of the word "mathematics" can cause anxiety and trigger unusual behavior in some children. Known as mathematics anxiety, this learned behavior, experienced by many and occurring at all levels, can escalate and become worse over time if not addressed. Parents can play a significant role in their child's mathematical learning. This article will help parents identify mathematics anxiety and its effects on learning, discover its causes, and offer suggestions for preventing or reducing mathematics anxiety in children.

What is Mathematics Anxiety?
Mathematics anxiety has been defined in a variety of ways. More than a dislike toward mathematics, Smith (1997) characterized mathematics anxiety as an uneasiness when asked to perform mathematically (think of dividing up the restaurant check). People experience feelings of tension, physical sickness, faintness, dread and/or panic when asked to perform mathematical tasks. It is an irrational fear of mathematics that can range from a simple discomfort associated with numerical operations to total avoidance of mathematics and mathematics classes (Mathison, 1977). Tobias (1980) described mathematics anxiety as the "I can't" syndrome. She stated that people get feelings of uneasiness and mental disorganization when asked to perform mathematical problems, often developing a fatalistic attitude toward mathematics. Mathematics anxiety is debilitating in nature and can interfere with mathematics performance and inhibit subsequent learning.

Where Does It Come From? What Really Causes It?
Many times parents are responsible for their child's mathematics anxiety. Parents sometimes fear the subject themselves and pass this along to their children inadvertently. According to Burns (1998), parents are often to blame for their children's fear of mathematics. Adults often complain about their own inadequacies or negative experiences in mathematics in front of their children. It is not uncommon to hear parents say, "Oh, I was never good at mathematics and just couldn't get it," or, "I could never do math either and hated it." Mathematics anxious parents will result in mathematics anxious children.

Inappropriate educational practices can also cause mathematics anxiety in children. Traditional teaching practices that focus primarily on rote memorization of facts, insistence on only using one method for problem solving, teaching from the textbook problem by problem, and/or lack of applied activities creates more math phobics (Woodard, 2004). Too much emphasis is placed on memorizing formulas, learning mathematics through drill and practice, and applying rote rules. Many of those charged with teaching children often fail to detect a child's lack of understanding of the mathematical material being taught. When this lack of understanding occurs, children often experience frustration and failure and inevitably become mathematically anxious (Gresham, 2004).

Suggestions for Preventing or Reducing Mathematics Anxiety

  1. Parents must first understand that mathematics anxiety can and does occur!
  2. Admit it if YOU have problems with mathematics. Parental denial of your own mathematics anxiety will only escalate its existence in your child.
  3. Provide support and use calming, positive talk when conversing about mathematics. Avoid negative comments like "I was never good at math so it's not surprising that you aren't."
  4. Allow your child to solve a problem more than one way. Let them feel comfortable with what they are doing and learning.
  5. Teach your child the basics of mathematics. It is okay if your child needs to go back and review every now and then.
  6. Create a comfortable atmosphere for learning. Also, let your child choose what type of study environment works for them (a quiet place in their favorite room, at the kitchen table, on the floor with pillows, having music in the background, etc.).
  7. Take breaks when doing mathematics. Don't work your child for hours! This will only create frustration.
  8. Don't pressure or embarrass your child. Getting an answer wrong is not the end of the world and will only escalate their anxiety. Mathematics anxiety is not cured in a day.
  9. Let your child know that mathematical skills are acquired little by little as a result of perseverance, application, and thought.
  10. Teach to your child's learning style. What works for you will not necessarily work for them.
  11. Move from traditional teaching approaches of paper-and-pencil drills to more hands-on manipulative type instruction. Use concrete materials for learning skills.
  12. Allow time for questioning and time for listening.
  13. Make mathematics relevant. Do family mathematics projects involving daily household activities. (Use cooking activities, favorite hobbies, sewing, games, grocery shopping, sports, etc).
  14. Be sure each concept is understood before continuing. If a concept is missed, the concepts that build on it will be meaningless. Mathematics must make sense to your child.
  15. Use journal writing and self-reflections as learning opportunities. Let children express their feelings and understandings of mathematical concepts. Help them learn how to evaluate their own learning.
  16. Allow them to use calculators, computers, and other technology during mathematics instruction. (NOTE: This is not to be construed as saying that there is no need to learn basic facts and develop proficiency with number operations.)
  17. Use gradual repeated success to build mathematics confidence in children.

Mathematics anxiety is a frequently encountered condition in all levels of education. Early identification of mathematics anxiety is most important for the future mathematics learning of the individual. Understanding its cause and finding ways to avoid or reduce mathematics anxiety is crucial for successful mathematical learning in children.

Suggestions for Reading:

  • Burns. Marilyn. The I hate Mathematics! Book. Little, Brown & Company, 1975.
  • Burns. Marilyn. Math: Facing an American Phobia. Math Publications, 1998.
  • Kenschaft, Patricia Clark. Math Power: How to Help Your Child Love Math, Even if You Don't. Reading: A: Addison-Wesley, 1997. 
  • Tobias. Shelia. Overcoming Math Anxiety (Revised and Expanded). New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993.


  • Burns. M. (1998). Math: Facing an American Phobia. Math Solutions Publicaitons. Sausailto, CA. 
  • Gresham, G. (2004). Mathematics anxiety in elementary school students. ComMuniCator, 28, (1), 28-29.
  • Mathison, M. (1977). Curricular interventions and programming innovations for  the reduction of mathematics anxiety. Paper presented at the annual convention of American Psychological Association. San Francisco, CA. 
  • Smith, S. (1997). Early childhood mathematics Botson: Allyn & Bacon. 
  • Woodard, T. (2004). The effects of math anxiety on post-secondary development students as related to achievement, gender, and age. Inquiry, 9, (1). 1-5.


Dr. Gina Gresham is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics Education at the University of Central Florida. She can be emailed at [email protected].

This article was originally published in the Jan/Feb '06 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. For more information, and to request a free sample issue, visit http://HomeSchoolEnrichment.com