Math Anxiety and What to Do About It

I recently received quite a few e-mails when the Nov 8, 2012 Times article "High Anxiety: How Worrying About Math Hurts Your Brain" by Olivia Waxman about the study published by Ian M Lyons and Sian Beilock.

You can go to this web site to read the article in its entirety.

http://healthland.time.com/2012/11/08/high-anxiety-how-worrying-about-math-hurts-your-brain/

http://news.uchicago.edu/article/2012/10/31/when-people-worry-about-math-brain-feels-pain

In summary, the study reported that the mere anticipation of doing a math problem, for those with math anxiety, triggered increased activity in the dorso-posterior insula an anatomical area- the same are that shows increased activity when experiencing either physical pain or social rejection. When the math problem was solved, the pain center did not show increased activity.

Although many people report math anxiety, what occurs to me is that many individuals have cognitive weaknesses that impede their ability to understand and execute math problems. The result is that they accept these limitations as unchangeable and then begin to feel anxious.   It is important to learn why math is so challenging.  Actually, there are a number of foundational skills that can help support math: attention for detail, memory, logic & reasoning, visual processing, processing speed and number fluency.  As these foundation skills improve, so can math abilities.

Attention is the ability to stay focused over time. This skill is important for math require you to be able to remain focused over time and attend to detail, especially as problems get more complex. You can tell if your child has trouble paying attention if he understands the concept of the problem but then adds instead of multiplies, or subtracts instead of adds.

Try this: A simple deck of playing cards can be magic for reinforcing cognitive skills.  To build attention, have your child raise his/her hand or hit a bell whenever s/he sees the targeted number or suite of card as you flip through a deck of playing or Uno ™ cards.  To further challenge your child, s/he must say the targeted card or quickly add, subtract or multiply a number to the card.  To build sustained attention, add another deck of cards.

Memory is the ability to store and retrieve information. Memory is important to recall number facts and sequence. What is your child’s ability to hold on to the first steps of a problem or the initial calculation? If she cannot hold this information long enough to move on to the next step of the problem, progression will be difficult. She may need to retrieve previously learned information from long-term memory to execute the problems at hand.

Try this: Show your child a numbered card. Next, turn it over, hiding the number, and then have your child say the card number.  Present another card in the same way. Then, have your child remember and then add the two numbers.  Repeat this using two new cards at a time. As he gets better, have him work on adding in sequence. To do this, repeat the previous pattern,but then have him recall last number shown (not the sum). Next, show & hide another card and ask him to add this new number to the previous.  Continue, but remember: don’t add the sum number, only the numbers presented visually.

Visual processing is the ability to see and manipulate visual stimuli. It is helpful to see shape, size, and relationships. We use this skill to see groups, understand angles, and other activities in math.

Try this: Quick matching of similar shapes or numbers can be helpful.  You can tweak this activity by sorting by size with various sizes presented and the same for the orientation of the shape – a triangle upside down or at an angle matching a triangle presented in the vertical position.

Logic and reasoning allows us to see patterns and trends; it allows us to order events. One needs logic and reasoning to understand bigger concepts.  When we decide what is needed and how to set up a story problem, we are using logic and reasoning.

Try this: Practice copying patterns with young children using items like beads or blocks.  You can even have fun and have them create a pattern for a crown, flowerpot border or placemat for dinner.  For older children, start a pattern and see if they can finish the pattern.  This can be easily done with building blocks and Leggo’s ™.

Processing speed is how efficiently and quickly we can process information. It is very important to be able to do the basics quickly and move to second or third steps.

Try this: Time your child working his/her way through various paper and pencil mazes.  Your child will love the competition when you make it a race between multiple participants!

Number fluency is recognition of written numbers. It is a coding process normally developed by age three or four. If we are delayed with recognition of numbers, it slows us down with calculation.

Try this: Get two decks of cards and deal out one deck, an equal number of cards for each player.  Use the second deck to flip over the target cards; players must match the number on the card being pulled from the second deck.  The first person to get rid of all their cards by matching the numbers is the winner.  To push number fluency that is more than visual recognition, have participants say the number before placing the card on the target card.

Sometimes, working with a psychologist on math anxiety may be helpful.  When we have had a negative experience with something in the past, like difficulty with math, we often continue to anticipate a negative experience. What’s more, if our brain becomes overwhelmed with anxiety, it doesn’t process as well.  However, if you suspect an underlying weakness is related to your child’s math skills, and not only anxiety, learning your child's skill areas and targeting work in those areas might just do the trick, making stress over math a thing of the past.

To learn more, contact The Brain Trainer.

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There are 3 comments, would you like to add yours?

  1. Brian
    October 13th

    Thanks for this. The effect performance anxiety can have on measurable math skill is often very understated (or even completely disregarded). Great to be able to review the actual inner workings of math anxiety and their direct effects.

    (Reply)
    • Caroline
      February 9th

      Thanks for cotnbiruting. It’s helped me understand the issues.

      (Reply)
      • jduft
        June 21st

        Hi Carolyn, The examples you have provided are often found with people who have mild dyslexia; right and left confusion, effortful and slow recognition and identification of /b/ and /d/ and slower new learning overall. Adults can improve their cognitive and reading skills. When they improve their skills, they feel more confident. We have many adults who work on these skills to improve their comfort level, to have more opportunities at work or to tackle college. We begin with an assessment so that both you and I can learn about your strengths and weaknesses and put together an individual plan that targets your unique needs. Give us a call at 704-541-1373.

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