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Author: Chitra Iyer
Published on:
April 29, 2022

How to Beat Math Anxiety: An Effective Strategy for Early Learners

Math anxiety was a real thing for many of us in school and life. But it doesn't have to be for our children. All it needs is a new lens to help us reframe how our child approaches this subject. Here’s how parents can help kids see math through the liberating lens of a lived experience rather than through the limiting lens of a subject that must be mastered.
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Visualize this.

A kid - maybe yours - is regularly failing math at school.

You’ve been through the extra tutoring and the ed-tech subscription. The kid is just not getting it. You are scared, anxious and it's taking a toll on your relationship with your child. You are afraid he will fail the year, end up repeating a class, forever branded a failure!

His teachers have given up - already labeled him ‘weak’ in math. They suggest regular practice is the only way for the child to pass the exam. (Not they don’t say learn or understand math - all the focus is on passing the exam, and that may be part of the problem, but  more on that later).

What strategy can you - as the parent - use to help fix this situation? 

1. Force/ bribe/ plead them to sit down everyday and torture them with 2 hours of ‘practicing’ sums while they’d rather be doing anything else - stare out the window, swat at a fly..you get the idea. 

This approach has quick rewards- they may get 5 out of 7 right and you can feel like you did what you needed to do as a parent. It may or may not show some impact on exam results but it sure as day won’t make them enjoy math.

2. Find a way to help them understand math by reframing what it is entirely. This approach is challenging - because it will take a lot of effort from you, but it has the potential to permanently change the game for the child.

It can help them see math in entirely new ways- not as a dogmatic subject but as a conceptual lived experience. Something even enjoyable once they see that it is possible to have your ‘own’ way of working with patterns, numbers and symbols.

Researchers Szu-Han Wang and Richard Morris note in their study about brain-science and memory, “we rapidly remember what interests us, but what interests us takes time to develop’. 

The takeaway is that if we could get our children engaged with, interested in and comfortable with the idea - the notion and concept - of math, we could help them form a more positive disposition to studying more advanced and procedural forms of it. 

In this super-long but entirely heart-felt (with some science) blog post about ‘How Parents Can Help Kids Learn- and enjoy- math’, I’ve spoken my heart out on why kids start hating math and how parents can respond to change that.

Spoiler alert: its entirely do-able, and as you will see from my own story, it's never too late!

When and Why Do Kids Develop Math Anxiety? And How Can Parents Help?

Start by answering this. Does your child have a foundational understanding of math?

I’m not talking about formulas or memorizing steps to solve basic math problems. I am talking about an understanding of the very idea of math.

If you go back to the 5 components of effective learning, this is about meaning and context.

If a child is unsure what the heck role this subject (math) and activity (learning math) plays in their life, they will never- ever- be comfortable with learning it. They sure as hell won't put their best into it. Context is everything.

Without context, they will close their mind to it, like you may have done as a child. They will fall behind and will keep falling ever more behind, ultimately being labeled as ‘weak’ at math, ultimately starting to believe the marks and the red lines rather than their own ability. 

Reframing math is a good place to start fixing this.

Also read: How to Learn Anything: The Ultimate Parent's Guide to Learning Techniques

Reframing the Idea of Math: Conceptual vs. Procedural Math

There is a difference between math as a subject - what I’m going to call as Procedural math, and Conceptual math - math as a lived experience.

Math as a subject approaches it as a set of steps, rules and formulas to be strictly followed to arrive at a predetermined answer. 

For many people unlucky enough to be introduced to math in this way (as I was), it is like being pushed into a train that's just pulling out of the station, with no explanation of why you need to get on it or what to expect enroute. 

The only goal is to get to some specific destination and no one cares whether you want to even get there or why.

In this TedX talk, Dan Finkel, a Ph.D. in algebraic geometry and Founder of Math for Love, a Seattle-based organization devoted to transforming how math is taught - and learned - says mathematical miseducation is so common we can hardly see it anymore.

It’s no wonder that so many children leave school thinking they hate math, glad to be rid of it forever. 

Of course, what they are getting ‘rid’ of is not math - which is needed in multiple facets of ordinary life - but the way it's taught and the dread of being tested on things that seem completely irrelevant to their day-to-day existence. 

In other words, ‘learning’ math becomes only about studying it for a specific outcome - passing exams. In this case, the outcome is also that the learner ends up dreading, fearing, hating this thing called math. What a pity and what a disadvantage in life!

The ‘Process’ of Learning Math

Math as a lived experience is all about meaning, context, connecting the dots and application in real life. It is a language. The more you use it, the more natural you get at it.

Math seen solely as a subject is procedural. 

Removed from life. 

A big, ugly silo you just do not want to get into.

For example, what is addition or fractions? The conceptual understanding of these are best explained in a language, as an experience - not as a formula - especially to early learners still getting acquainted with it.

The ‘process’ of math is the process of logical thinking, of pattern-formation, of making connections - all processes that come naturally to most humans. 

The goal in the early years of learning math should be not to score in a math exam, or memorize a formula, but to:

  • Make connections between everyday life and math concepts
  • Find meaning in the concepts by seeing them as lived experiences (not something inhuman/ numerical/ the opposite of art/ to be feared)
  • To develop their natural and instinctive math-logic abilities and skills through practice. But not practice on pen and paper with a book, but through living the experience of math. Maybe with words, songs, actions, art, food or anything else. Props are not hard to find - math is in every single thing we do and see around us.

How to Evolve Conceptual Math Skills into Procedural Math Abilities

At the end of the day, for most people, math doesn't have to be an exact science. Most of us need to know enough about ratios and percentages and arithmetic to make smarter decisions in whatever we are doing.

If there is a strong conceptual connection and understanding early in the math-learning process, the application starts happening naturally. 

As a result the procedural element also evolves naturally, and gets stronger over time,  since daily application in lived experiences is the ‘practice’ - over and above whatever they may be doing in the classroom.

In fact all the stuff I did in classrooms probably would have started making more sense to me, if I could have made meaning of it, by connecting it to lived experiences in my own day-to-day life. 

But What About Math Practice?

No doubt deliberate practice will make a learner stronger and better in specific concepts needed to be mastered for school work.

But kids need to be convinced of the intrinsic value of being able to understand math. 

They also need to believe that there is a value to their process of experiencing math and making meaning of it.

They need to accept that though math is a somewhat exact and precise science, there can be multiple processes to get to the same answer. It’s important for them to know that. The opposite of understanding something is fear. When they are denied the chance to understand the meaning of math in life (not for exams but for living), they begin to fear and avoid math.

For example, this Math Spy game my son got for his 8th birthday shows us that we can use many operations to arrive at a number (say, 20). As parents, when they are working on a question, we try not to focus unduly on the answer but HOW they got there. 

When they solve a sum, instead of asking ‘what answer did you get’, try asking ‘how did you get here? Why did you choose this path (and not another) to get here? Can there be other ways to arrive at this answer? etc.

Show interest in their method. Share your own method. 

Ask 3 other people around and they may have 3 more methods to share! 

This discourse is important even in math - it's not something just for philosophy or art! 

Math really is vast and beautiful. When we have the chance to look at math through the lens of logic and lived experiences, we can really glimpse the vastness and beauty of it. 

Instead, most kids grow up thinking math only lives inside textbooks and exams, and they will, unfortunately, grow into the kind of people that say ‘I hate math’ or ‘I’m simply no good at math.’ They will learn to live with a fixed mindset about math. Like me, and perhaps you.

Conclusion: in Math as concept vs. Math as Procedure, who wins?

So, here is the thing. 

It's not a ‘I win-you lose’ thing. 

My approach is simply that both have their place, all I’m saying is let kids get their basic concepts in place by locating the meaning of math in their everyday life, let them understand why they are doing what they are doing, before getting into the more advanced procedures in school. 

As parents, we can help them get comfortable with the language of math and understand it through their own unique process, before being thrown headlong into a 12 year train-ride without understanding why! Because once you are on that train and it leaves the station, you only fall more and more behind - no amount of tuition can help to truly understand the subject. 

The only goal then becomes to somehow make the child squeeze through exams till they can leave it to the ‘smarter kids’ in class 10 and accept their fate of being a non-STEM person for life!

Instead, let them ask questions, take time to think, struggle and grapple with the problem, let them make observations and go through their own process of problem solving. 

Let them make assumptions- mistakes - and find a few paths, without time pressure. 

Let them know that the idea of learning math is not to solve everything in 20 seconds or less. 

In real life, it's about solving problems with high-quality reasoning

That not understanding something is not failure. It's just part of the learning process. 

And even though our schools can't or won’t do it, there can be room for mathematical conversations and debates at home. 

Our job as parents is to make children comfortable with thinking mathematically, rather than turning them into mathematicians. 

If your child is facing the math-dread disease, then think about these aspects and see if it helps to reframe the role of math in their life, to have a discussion about how much math is enough to take the pressure off.

Help them locate math in their life. 

You may just find them opening their minds and hearts to math if you are able to help them see that it is just another lived experience. 

Let’s leave the math formulas to their math teacher. As parents, let us focus on helping our children experience, engage and embrace it instead!

Here's What You Could Read Next:

Why Failing Forward is Your Child's Secret Learning Skill

Figuring Out Your Child's Learning Style: The Ultimate Guide

How Can Parents Help Kids Enjoy Math?

Why Teaching is the Best Way for Kids to Learn

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