Five Ways To Overcome Math Anxiety

By Stephen A. Johnson

L.A. schools math anxiety

When it comes to tackling math, attitude makes a world of difference. PHOTO BY STOCKIMAGES

Beyond basic arithmetic, most of us do not remember the details of our early math education. Fundamentals such as adding, subtracting and multiplying have not escaped our memory. However, square roots, radicals and the quadratic formula have long been tucked away in the far reaches of our minds.

When our children are young, we gladly help them with their math homework. Our children believe we have all the answers, and they come to us with all of their questions. Somewhere between reducing fractions and pre-algebra, however, many of us have to decide whether to reveal to our children that our days of helping them with their math homework are quickly approaching an end, or take on the challenge of staying ahead of the curve and attempting to relearn the material. (How hard could it be, right?)

Most of the parents I’ve worked with in L.A. schools over the last 17 years have chosen to give up their roles as homework helpers. These parents can vividly recall the bad seventh-grade math teacher who forever scarred their ability to do complex math. They actually believe that they possess a genetic trait that makes them bad at math. I’ve cringed upon hearing parents go so far as to say that they’d passed down this “bad at math” gene to their children. They ask me to use my magic touch to reverse the math curse that plagues their family.

But even if your days of crunching numbers and doing geometry proofs are over, the best gift you can give your children is a belief in their ability to succeed in spite of obstacles and challenges they may face. The skills that help us succeed in our adult lives are the very skills that will help our sons and daughters succeed in math.

Here are some tips that parents can use to help replace feelings of mathematical inadequacy with a sense of hope:

Accept that math might be difficult for you. Many of us get so caught up in how easily “other people” seem to understand math that we discount a fact of life: If you’re not naturally good at something, it simply means you need to work a little harder to get the results you desire.

Debunk the “smart” myth. Our kids need to understand that working hard to succeed in math is just as valuable as being “smart” in math, and to value hard-fought successes above those that come easily.

Take advantage of your resources. Many students rely solely only on their memories of the teacher’s lecture, and rarely read their textbooks or study class notes to solidify their understanding. It is unfair to believe that you can just open the book and perfectly recall the details of all you’ve learned on-demand. If your child is having trouble with a particular topic:

  • Consult the textbook.
  • Review class notes.
  • Contact a classmate or friend.
  • Check out a how-to video online.
  • Meet with the teacher.
  • Enroll in on-campus opportunities for assistance.
  • Hire a private tutor.

Be proactive. Get out in front of potential math difficulties and provide learning and enrichment opportunities.

  • Schedule study/homework time.
  • Use winter, spring and summer breaks to get ahead.
  • Supplement class learning with workbooks, board games, video games and mobile apps that support an overall comfort with math.

Become the student. Showing a genuine interest in your child’s math lessons might motivate them to pay more attention in class and to share their new math knowledge with you.

I have met many bright students who have decided they can’t be engineers, doctors or architects because there is “so much math” involved in pursuing these careers. A subtle change in perspective from “I’m not good at math” to “I have to work hard to do well in math” could be all a student needs in order to follow their dreams.

Stephen A. Johnson is the founder of Bright Minds Tutoring, www.brightmindstutoring.org. He is a UCLA graduate with a degree in microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics; a professional background in science and a passion for student achievement. He has provided Los Angeles-area K-12 students with tutoring services in curriculum-related subject matter and test prep for more than a decade.

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