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Turning fear into triumph: How to help your child beat math anxiety
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Turning fear into triumph: How to help your child beat math anxiety

Fear of math in children can develop from parental pressure to succeed academically. Managing expectations and adopting innovative ways to teach the subject can help 
Math anxiety can develop in children due to parental or teacher pressure to succeed academically
Photo by Anantha Subramanyam K/Happiest Health

Anxiety or tension while trying to solve a mathematical problem, referred to as math anxiety, is a significant issue that affects many children, especially poignant with the exam season approaching. The perception of the subject, coupled with the requirement of math skills to crack entrance examinations for professional courses, has only worsened the phobia. To make things worse, those who succeed at it are often viewed as exceptional, further heightening anxiety and fear among the rest. The way the subject is taught is crucial to address this issue, say experts, urging parents and teachers to make learning easy and enjoyable for kids. While sharing that math anxiety can persist through generations, they reassure that the subject does not have to be difficult in this day and age, with several resources available at one’s disposal.

For Soumya Susan, a 25-year-old client servicer from Bangalore, her math anxiety peaked when she was in 12th grade. “I froze and went blank while holding the question paper. I couldn’t remember anything,” she recalls, tracing her math phobia back to trigonometry lessons that she found intimidating in 10th grade.

To memorize the math formulas, she wrote them on sticky notes and affixed them on the mirror; however, she still found it difficult to remember them. “The only way I could overcome the fear was by pushing myself and doing my best during exams,” she says.

What triggers math anxiety in children?

The teaching approach towards the subject can sometimes trigger anxiety, says Pritika Gonsalves, a Mumbai-based child psychologist and member of the American Psychological Association. “Each child grasps lessons differently. So, if the teacher isn’t accommodating or approachable enough or doesn’t clarify their doubts and questions, the subject becomes difficult for them,” she explains. It is more challenging for children who are slow learners or have learning disabilities since they want more attention that a teacher may not be able to provide.

As a result, children often mug up the steps of math problems without really understanding them, points out Gonsalves. “If they forget a step, their anxiety shoots up and they feel lost. The steps of math problems shouldn’t be memorized; instead, it’s crucial to understand and remember the formulas to solve them,” she advises.

Besides teachers, parents can also trigger math anxiety in children. “Performing well in math is always an extra burden for children, as both parents and teachers have high expectations from them,” says Gonsalves. She adds that despite children struggling to grasp the syllabus, some parents enroll them in extra coaching classes for engineering and medical entrances as early as the sixth grade. “But they fail to realize that not all children like the subject, and pushing them to perform above their limit isn’t worth it,” she advises.

She further urges parents not to compare their child’s academic performance (including math) with that of other children. “This leads to peer pressure and stress, which can result in aversion towards math,” she says.

Innovative ways to reduce math anxiety

Math anxiety can be overcome by finding innovative ways to teach the subject
The math game app developed by Vidya Jayaraman helps children solve math problems through gameplay and storytelling. (Photo by Anantha Subramanyam K/Happiest Health)

If the child is exposed to innovative ways of learning the subject, such as games and puzzles, the phobia or anxiety can be overcome. Vidya Jayaraman, a pedagogy and mathematics education expert as well as the cofounder of Inteligen Games & Robotic Private Limited, Bangalore, has developed a math game app that has been incorporated into the curriculum of many private and government schools. The game is designed for both middle school and high school students. It focuses on math problems and puzzles through storytelling. “The abacus in the game has different colors for ones, tens and hundreds. The child then has to match the numeral that shows up on the abacus; if they get the equation right, they can defeat the monsters in the gameplay. The child earns a high score depending on how well they are able to crack the level. There are also self-correcting digital worksheets that make them want to do better,” she explains. Children, especially those in the lower grades, are evaluated according to the scores they achieve at each level on the physical worksheet.

Nirmala Sundar, a pedagogy expert and game designer with Inteligen, shares how the game has improved children’s performance, especially among middle schoolers. “There’s no pressure on them to learn quickly due to fear of being judged by others. They learn and evaluate themselves through gameplay,” she explains. The gameplay has helped them comprehend the subject and solve problems.

According to Jayaraman, the math game focuses on individualized and experiential learning, which has helped children overcome their fear of math.

Practical ways to teach children math

According to Gonsalves, parents should help their children become familiar with the fundamentals of the subject. “They can use puzzles, toys and other miscellaneous things at home to teach their children math concepts and help them beat their math phobia,” she advises.

Further, she suggests teaching the subject to children by relating it to everyday phenomena. For instance, teaching the table of five can be made relatable by explaining the functioning of a clock, where multiples of five are seen. 

Jayaraman uses different color coding to make math easy for children. “For example, while teaching a geometry theorem that states, ‘If two triangles are similar, their corresponding angles are equal,’ I use colors to show the equal angles. The sides opposite these angles are also marked in the same color, while the other angles and sides are marked in different colors. The child can easily remember the theorem this way,” she explains.

For students in middle and high school with math anxiety, Gonsalves advises parents to be approachable when dealing with their concerns. “Don’t negate your child’s feelings toward the subject, as it can interfere with their ability to understand their lessons or perform well in exams. You must find the root cause of the phobia in your child and help them approach the teacher when they need assistance,” she advises.

Takeaways

Math anxiety in children can be triggered by parental and teacher pressure to meet expectations. Engaging children in puzzles and games can help reduce their phobia towards the subject, say experts. They add that parents and teachers should help children become familiar with the fundamentals of the subject. In addition, teaching math by relating it to everyday phenomena can also help them overcome anxiety.

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