It’s that time of year again for gas-guzzling yellow buses, 3:00PM traffic, and TV commercials heavily relying on primary colors — back to school season.
While school can be exciting, there’s also a lot to be nervous about. The school day can be a battlefield for children with anxiety issues, and some kids might be dreading the new year because of a very specific anxiety — math.
Disliking math is one thing, but actually feeling terrified about math is another. Mathematics anxiety, or math anxiety, is a legitimate type of anxiety that’s been researched and studied for years. The Center for Neuroscience in Education defines math anxiety as “a feeling of tension and anxiety that interferes with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in…ordinary life and academic situations.” It also affects how kids perform on tests or quizzes and influences what kind of careers they choose.
Those are facts, but what does math anxiety actually look and feel like?
It’s sitting at your desk during a test, uncomprehending, heart in your throat, numbers and symbols making less and less sense the longer you stare at your paper.
It’s staying in during recess because you got an F on your math homework and you have to redo it.
It’s dreading the Minute Math exercises, knowing you won’t finish in time.
It’s avoiding eye contact when the teacher asks someone to do a math problem in front of the class.
It’s having to get extra help outside of class because word problems confuse you.
It’s having your parents set aside time every night to help you with math homework.
It’s feeling stupid in front of your friends when they get great scores on math quizzes or tests.
It’s double-checking, triple-checking, quadruple-checking your computations to make sure they’re correct.
It’s figuring out how to get out of taking a math class in college.
It’s avoiding jobs or activities that involve calculations because you’re not confident you can do them.
It’s feeling ashamed to ask for help because you’re afraid to admit you struggle with math.
It’s looking at the featured image of this blog post and feeling panicked at the numbers and variables.
Math anxiety manifests in any number of ways and varies depending on the person, but the root cause is the same — fear of failing, fear of being judged, fear of being incompetent.
When I was a peer tutor for first- and second-graders, I watched a boy get that deer in the headlights look during the Minute Math exercise. Fear and shame swirled in his eyes. It hurt my heart because I knew exactly what he was feeling. I knew we weren’t alone in this fear, but we were made to feel alone every day.
The US places such a high premium on high math scores that we often forget to encourage children to have a healthy relationship with math outside of standardized testing. We shouldn’t punish children and adults for their reluctance to do math. We need to directly address their fears and give them tools they can apply to both school and the real world. The sooner we start taking math anxiety seriously, the more we can do for future generations.