Math + Clock = Anxiety

It has become apparent to me over the past few months that anxiety is a recurring issue for both of my sons, though they show it in different ways and are triggered by different things.  For my eleven-year-old son, anxiety tends to show up primarily when doing schoolwork, and especially if he is taking any type of timed test (as he was required to do a few weeks ago).  In helping him get ready to take his state test, we spent lots of time preparing, and mostly focused on math as this seemed to be the subject that made him the most uncomfortable.  No fan of math tests myself (who doesn’t remember the heart-thumping, palm-sweating race through pages of problems, dreading the words “pencils down”?), I tried to share all of my best test-taking wisdom, but honestly I’m not sure much of it really helped lower his anxiety level.
Several days after his test, I was amazed at the coincidence when I came across an article in Education Week related to this very topic:  “Timed Tests and the Development of Math Anxiety.”  Written by a professor of math education at Stanford, Jo Boaler, the author describes important research results about math testing that all parents and teachers need to be aware of:
  • Math stress impedes students’ working memory (the area of the brain used for storing math facts and calculating numbers), which reduces achievement.
  • Math test anxiety has a higher negative impact on students who have the largest working memories — as the author says, “the very students who have the potential to take mathematics to higher levels.”
  •  Math anxiety actually “changes the structure and workings of the brain.”  

Unfortunately for our children, as Dr. Boaler points out, timed math tests are likely to continue amongst even the earliest grades given the emphasis in many curriculums on “math fluency” (working quickly) versus a focus on understanding and applying math concepts.  As parents it is difficult to change the system on our own, so what can we do?  I think our best recourse is to reassure our kids that we will support them, and to provide them with strategies to reduce their anxiety. Here are some specific ideas for doing this:

For All Ages

1.  Talk to the teacher.  With the school year starting soon, most teachers schedule parent-teacher conferences early in the year.  Use this opportunity to ask your child’s teacher to describe their approach to teaching math, and be prepared to ask questions about how the teacher plans to help students manage anxiety and ensure true understanding of math concepts. Be prepared to mention some of the research (see link above) since many teachers may not be aware of the current information.

2.  Talk to your child.  Ask how they feel about math and math tests, and ask what you can do to help them feel more prepared and less anxious.  Notice how your own issues with math may unexpectedly show up, and feel free to talk about them with your child — they’ll notice anyway.

 For Children in Early Grades (K-5)

3.  Demonstrate the value of math.  Help your child see how math is used in everyday activities:  weighing produce at the grocery store, estimating the grocery bill as you shop, making change, calculating sales taxes and tips, figuring out the area of a room. Kids who understand the value of math will be more likely to see it as important, not just something they have to do at school.

4.  Make it fun.  I know, most of us don’t think of “fun” and “math” together, but it is possible to connect these two concepts for our kids.  Logic puzzles and creative problem-solving games help kids build skills to understand math concepts and, maybe more importantly, build self-confidence.  One of my favorites that my kids actually enjoy (I promise!) is doing “Perplexors” and “Math Perplexors” together (both by MindWare).

For Older Children (Junior High and High School)

5. Encourage questions.  By sixth grade it’s likely that your child has already decided whether or not they are “good” at math, and talking about it with you may not be high on their priority list.  If you have an opportunity, though, strongly encourage your child to ask questions during math class.  Research has shown that those who do best in math tend to ask a lot of questions.  Most kids this age are trying to blend in, and answering a question incorrectly or doing anything else that may open them to ridicule is a fate worse than death.  However, reassuring them that most people experience anxiety about math may help.
6. Create a mantra.  In a stressful moment, nothing works better to focus the mind and calm the nerves than deep breathing and a self-affirming mantra.  You and your child should come up with something that works for them, but here are a few suggestions to work from:

  • My self-worth is not based on how well I do math.
  • I am capable of learning math.
  • I have the right to define success for myself.

I would love to hear other ideas from parents who have had success helping their kids overcome math anxieties, so if you have something to share, please do! 


About Lori Dunlap

Lori Dunlap worked for almost twenty years in the corporate world, first as a management consultant to Fortune 500 companies, and then at a large research university as a program director and adjunct faculty member. In addition to homeschooling her two sons, she writes regularly about education and parenting issues. You can read her blog at, or connect with her on Facebook:

Posted on August 11, 2012, in Common Concerns, Education, Homeschooling, Parenting. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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