Math Anxiety is Contagious: You’re Giving It to Your Kids. Here Is How to Stop It.

We’re in big trouble.

Among industrialized nations, Americans have the worst relationship with arithmetic and math. According to a 2015 Pew Research study, in a field of 71 countries, American 15 year olds placed 28th in math scores.

Those 15 year olds grow up to be American adults who cannot do simple math.

A research study appearing in the journal Education finds that 71% of Americans cannot calculate gas mileage, 58% cannot figure a tip and 78% do not have the skills to compute loan interest.

How do people manage these routine calculations when they have no idea how to do them? Researchers find that they simply guess, then “pad” their answer. In other words, they overpay. Imagine how much money is lost by avoiding learning how to do these simple calculations.

Babies only a few months old have basic mathematical skills, but by the time these babies are old enough to enter college 80% will report math anxiety to researchers studying the topic.

How can this be? What is causing this epidemic of math incompetence?

Research shows that it is us — parents and teachers.

In one sense, math anxiety is contagious — parents and teachers who suffer from math anxiety easily pass it onto their children and students.

For example, researchers writing in the Journal of Cognition and Development found that parents suffering from math anxiety tended to have children also suffering from math anxiety — but only if parents helped the children with their homework. The more the parents helped, the more severe their children’s math anxiety became!

Some researchers find that more than half of people reporting math anxiety recall it beginning with a specific incident causing public humiliation. These were things like going blank while standing at the chalkboard in front of the class, being called dumb or stupid when having difficulty with a problem, or having a teacher or parent turn their back and walk away in frustration when trying to help.

Experiences like these result in “social pain”, the same sort of pain one experiences after a romantic break up, suspension from work or school, or when bullied by others.

When social pain related to math happens often enough, anything associated with math, such as numbers, formulas, even the sight of a math book, generates feelings of fear and dread. Just thinking about math brings on the fear response. When that happens, our brain goes into defense mode, or threat response. One of the major features of the threat response is hypervigilance — scanning the environment with all our senses looking for the source of the threat.

Normal brain function stops at this point, and one of the first things to go is working memory.

Working memory is our ability to hold discrete bits of information in our conscious or short-term memory. Most cognitive researchers believe that we can hold no more than four numerical digits at one time in our working memory.

This is why telephone companies present ten digit phone numbers as two groups of three digits and one of four digits, and financial institutions break up account numbers into groups of four. By creating “chunks” of data points, we combine numbers into portions we can keep in our conscious memory.

We use working memory when doing mathematical calculations by holding numbers while we attend to calculations. For example, when multiplying 23 x 2 in our mind we first multiply 2 x 3 and hold the product of six in our working memory while we then multiply 2 x 2 for a product of 4, then put the four and six together for a solution of 46.

In his fascinating book The Emotional Brain, neurologist Joe LeDoux explains what happens in our brain when we experience anxiety. When an individual encounters a situation — say, seeing a math quiz — working memory holds that image. Simultaneously it searches long-term memories looking for a match.

If strong negative emotions are associated with that image, the amygdala — the brains fear center — activates. Instantly a number of neurological events occur. Neural circuits to the Executive Functioning area of the brain in the prefrontal cortex activate and working memory immediately shifts to assessing the environment for threats. At the same time, the amygdala sends a signal to the thalamus releasing stress hormones initiating the fight or flight instinct.

Imagine working an algebra problem while trying to keep your fight or flight response under control!

Anxiety compromises working memory so that even the most basic arithmetic becomes a huge challenge. It is important to remember that these things are happening in a social context — most commonly in a classroom in front of an audience. The fear response in this setting is exactly the same fear response we experience when we think we are going to be in an auto accident or victim of an assault.

Neurologist Matthew Lieberman has written a wonderfully informative book about social relationships and the brain called Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect. Leiberman studies how the brain processes social pain, the discomfort that comes with rejection by others.

In a fascinating series of fMRI experiments Lieberman finds that the same brain structure involved in processing physical pain also process the pain of social rejection. Incredibly, he found that over the counter pain remedies, (that is, Tylenol), diminishes the sensation of social pain, measured by both subjective reports from participants and the objective measures of brain activity.

Lieberman tells us about Roy Baumeister’s experiments examining the relationship between social pain and cognitive functioning. All Baumeister did was give some subjects a fake assessment indicating they would never marry and would likely have few friends and then use IQ and GRE questions to detect changes in intellectual functioning. Subjects led to believe they would be socially isolated in the future scored about 20% lower on IQ questions and 30% lower on GRE questions than subjects who did not receive the prediction of social rejection.

If a subtle suggestion has such a dramatic effect on cognition imagine what years of math anxiety must have. That gives an idea of how powerful the negative experiences reported by people with math anxiety can be. Isolated episodes of embarrassment and humiliation associated with arithmetic can have devastating effects on the ability to do math many years after they occur.

The idea that social pain and physical pain are so closely related is probably the most important aspect of understanding people with math anxiety. Procrastinating and rushing though calculations are just ways to avoid the pain, not signs of character flaws like laziness or apathy.

Procrastination and rushing through math problems are the two biggest reasons for poor math performance and most common behaviors of people with math anxiety. These are also the two things that teachers report the most frustration in combating. When you think about it from the point of view of the person with math anxiety they make perfect sense

For them math is painful. It hurts. Exposure to any sort of math related activity dredges up memories of social pain — verbal abuse by a teacher in front of classmates, or the very public humiliation of going blank at the blackboard.

So how can we help people struggling with math anxiety?

One way is to educate our children and students about common myths about math.

Math Myth #1 Math Success Requires High Intelligence

We try to instill confidence by telling learners they are smart when they answer a math question correctly. Although teachers and parents have the best of intentions this feedback easily leads to the learner thinking that they are dumb the next time they get an answer wrong. Every wrong answer reinforces the idea that “I’m really dumb at math,” and sets the learner up for more failure.

Instead of associating math skills with intelligence, and lack of math skills with lack of intelligence, emphasize practice and study. When students get a correct answer, emphasize things they can control like study and practice, not something out of reach like innate intelligence.

“Right! Good job. You must be practicing. I can always tell.”

“Math is like everything else — ten percent theory, ninety percent practice.”

“Don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong.”

Myth #2 You Must Never Be Wrong

People with math anxiety have no tolerance for making mistakes. They berate themselves when they forget to carry a three, or are off by one decimal place. They see success and failure as the only possible outcomes of a math question. In their view, there is no other option, so every mathematical operation is an opportunity for fleeting success or plumbing the depths of new humiliations.

Teachers and parents can help learners overcome this myth by not allowing them to fail. Always find something positive in every failure. Find something to praise in every incorrect answer.

“So what if you are off by a decimal point? You did the computation correctly, and that is the hard part. Putting the decimal point in the right place is easy next to computing a formula. You’ll figure it out.”

“What do you mean you’ll never get math? Two weeks ago, you hardly knew what a fraction was and now you’re multiplying them! That’s pretty impressive even if you are making mistakes.”

“Every time you get a wrong answer you also get the opportunity to learn how not to repeat the mistake. It’s OK to make more than one mistake before you learn how to get it right. How do you suppose you learned to walk?”

Myth #3 You Must Be Fast

No, you don’t need to be fast. You need to be methodical. Do the problem, and then do the proof. The entire reason for doing the proof is to see if the original answer is correct. If it is not correct, look for an error in the equation and calculations.

Being in a hurry lends itself to feelings of anxiety, when the key to doing well in math is to be relaxed. There is no rush about this. Encourage learners to go at a slow, even leisurely, pace. This introduces the idea that math can be fun.

Also, it is OK to take breaks, whether they be short excursions to a social network site or a short walk. Our brain is like any other part of our body and gets fatigued with use. Encourage learners to study hard for no more than about 20 minutes at a stretch. Forcing yourself to study for longer than this just makes learning that much harder.

Teachers should avoid timed tests. What do times tests measure, anyway? Do scores reflect math skills or are they a better measure of anxiety levels and frustration management? Timed tests have no relationship to the challenges of math in the real world, and do more harm than good.

Timed tests do little more than create anxiety and lower scores. Avoid them and preach the virtues of a slow and methodical approach to math problems.

Myth #4 You Know How Good You Are By Comparing Yourself to Others

Researchers find that learners brake down into one of two orientations, a performance orientation and a mastery orientation.

Learners in the performance orientation measure their performance by comparing themselves with others or against set criteria. Learners with performance orientation tend to suffer from math anxiety more often and to greater severity than learners with a mastery orientation do.

Learners with a mastery orientation are motivated to learn by the intrinsic value of learning or for personal satisfaction of knowing useful skills.

Formal education evaluates learners exclusively from a performance perspective. IN this traditional view, students compete with one another and against set criteria. This approach almost guarantees that a good portion of students will face huge challenges in learning.

The good news is that parents and teachers can easily address this issue by helping learners to adopt a mastery orientation. Emphasis needs to focus on improvements in over time for individual students. The message to transmit is that the learner is not in competition with students that are more skilled or against unattainable standards.

Myth #5 Poor Math Skills Are a Sign of a Learning Disorder

The only proven learning disorder affecting math skills is dyscalculia. People with this condition often do not realize that a number represents how many things are present. They may not understand the concept of one quantity being larger than another is, or that the number 5 refers to five different things.

Dyscalculia is very rare. People who think they have it most likely have garden-variety math anxiety. The only way to be sure is through comprehensive testing. However, if a learner shows they can improve their skills even minimally they likely do not have a legitimate disability.

Study and practice are the only way to learn math, and the more fun and rewarding teachers and parents can make it the better learners perform.

A few closing tips:

Celebrate accomplishments, no matter how small.

Emphasize the importance of study and practice over innate intelligence.

Discourage long uninterrupted study sessions. We are good for only about 20 minutes of intense study.

Encourage a mastery mindset. The learner is competing with themselves, not other students, or a clock.

Check out the books mentioned in this article at Amazon:

Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect

The Emotional Brain

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