Episode 4: 3 Strategies to Stop Math Anxiety Before it Starts

Updated: Jul 12

Episode 4 Sources

Download the Affirming Phrases -

E4-Kids Math Talk Podcast 3 Strategies

What percentage of Americans do you think experience math anxiety? That panic, helplessness, paralysis, and mental disorganization when required to solve a math problem (Tobias 1980) ? 30%? How about 45%? Or Maybe 10%?

While daily life requires adults to apply math skills on a consistent basis-which the vast majority of Americans are actually capable of doing-“approximately 93 percent of Americans indicate that they experience some level of math anxiety” (Blazer 2011). Ninety-three percent of us are either getting sweaty palms and a racing heart just for trying to calculate the amount saved when something is on sale or we simply try to avoid these math situations altogether in order to avoid that uncomfortable anxiety.

Parents and educators have to work together so that these are not the experiences awaiting our children once they enter adulthood. Children start out life as inquisitive and innately mathematical beings. This fear is not the effect of a “missing math gene”- which isn’t even real by the way. This fear has been learned- it is the collective result of complex factors including negative associations or experiences about one’s belief in him or herself about doing math.

We have the power to interrupt the current system and this cycle of fear. In Episode 3, I give 3 strategies to stop math anxiety before it starts.

When I think about math experiences for my nephew and youngest niece, who will both enter kindergarten in the fall, I am hopeful that they will be able to explore math concepts through play and experimentation and will be free from anxiety or stress. I am excited to once again be able to work with children in my district and to help them experience the joy of math. But even with this optimism, the fact still remains that math anxiety “has...been recorded in [children] as young as five”(Boaler p. 38).

Imagine being an innocent child in a kindergarten or 1st grade classroom, with only a few years of schooling behind you, and already you’re terrified of getting an answer wrong or of making a mistake in front of your peers. Mistakes- which by the way are natural, and really how we learn. This will not only negatively affect your self-image, but this math anxiety will signal your amygdala to take over - that part of your brain responsible for the “flight, fight, freeze, or appease” response. When your amygdala is turned on in a sense, the result is that your working memory shrinks. So what does that mean exactly?

Well, if the working memory is blocked, then new information is not going to be learned and retained.

If a child as young as five is experiencing math anxiety, then this means that foundational skills such as counting forwards and backwards, one to one correspondence, or writing numbers as well as the building of crucial number sense are at risk of not being retained.

If this new information is not being learned, this could lead to a child disconnecting with the content later in the school year and in later grades. This will most likely lead to learning gaps and the amygdala continuing to interfere with a child’s working memory. If anxiety is not decreased and the learning gaps remain, this could lead to further avoidance of math and higher level math not being accessible to these students.

Again, this is not because a student is not capable of mathematics, but because their experiences and feelings of panic, helplessness, fear, have caused them to disconnect from the subject and doubt the fact that they are capable.

The adverse effects of math anxiety, unfortunately do not stop when a child is done with school. This can play out negatively later in life, right, when certain types of employment and financial opportunities become out of reach because this panic and fear is blocking their true potential.

And while research supports the fact that females and culturally and linguistically diverse students are often denied rich learning opportunities that could deepen their understanding and help them to see themselves as mathematicians, this fear actually extends to all subsets of our population. We have to find new ways to help all children interact with math so that math anxiety does not follow 93% of the next generation into adulthood.

The first strategy to help stop math anxiety is to move from judgement calls to words of affirmation.

Strategy #1 - Moving from judgement calls to words of affirmation

Early in my teaching career I know I used phrases such as, “you are so smart!”, or “I really like your work!” when talking to students about particular assignments. It wasn’t necessarily everyday, but when I did I know that these praises weren't given to each individual student in the class. I did use these phrases with the best of intent, as I’m sure many of you might.

And just like so many other adults, I didn’t question these praises, not until I read Mathematical Mindsets, where Jo Boaler states that - “one reason so many students in the United States have fixed mindsets is [because of ] the praise they are given by parents and teachers.” (Boaler p.8)

When I first read that, it really hurt to think that I could be the cause of a fixed mindset. But I had never really thought about the impact of these phrases before. How are these attempts at feedback actually helpful? How are they supposed to advance a child’s thinking? How do these phrases show a child that you believe they are capable of challenging work?

When I finally sat down to really think about it - I found out that They really don’t help children. and furthermore, the use or avoidance of judgement phrases like these can really be the result of our own implicit biases, having nothing to do with a child’s actual capabilities.

More and more research studies are revealing that the impact of these praises can actually be harmful in the long run.

Boaler goes on to say that “even believing you are smart is damaging, as students with this fixed mindset are less willing to try more challenging work or subjects because they are afraid of slipping up and no longer being seen as smart” (Boaler p.8).

Children can internalize this talk as meaning that “I either have it or I don't”, instead of approaching a new skill as something that can be learned. Children also learn that the value of their work needs to be judged by others, meaning that their internal dialogue is always dependent on a script written from an outside source.

This book helped me realize that educators need to move away from these judgement calls, check our own implicit biases, and help kids internalize words of affirmation that help them to feel safe, valued, and help build a positive identity - so that they can focus on learning. Here are some suggestions on what to say instead-

These are affirming phrases that can be used throughout the school day and even at home while playing a game, working outside together, or learning a new skill.

Commit to one of these phrases or adapt one and then add on another once the first becomes natural for you.

You can head to www.kidsmathtalk.com for a download of these affirming phrases (see top) and also for a link to a bookmark that has phrases to use during partner work .

This brings us to-

Strategy #2 - Using High-Yield Math Routines

We as parents and educators must make it a priority to bring human aspects back to mathematics so that isolated computer problems and anxiety are not how children connect to math.

We can do this by tapping into our children’s cultures, incorporating things that students truly care about and by ensuring that they believe that they belong in these math spaces. This requires ambitious teaching on the part of educators - but together we can make this happen because our kids are worth it.

One way to start is by introducing some high-yield routines into your math block like Mystery Number, Quick Images, or Guess My Rule. One of my ultimate favorites is the routine called -Which One Doesn’t Belong. This is usually introduced as 3 or 4 images placed in a two by 2 grid. Students are given a minute or two to look at the images and to begin to look for possible similarities and differences and connections between the images in order to craft an argument around “which one doesn’t belong.”

I love this because you can do a search on Google for pre-made grids, you can make your own to make the images more relevant to the children in your class, and students can even make their own.

Incorporating high yield routines teaches children that they have a voice - that they are capable of crafting arguments as well as listening in order to critique the reasoning of others. Anxiety is reduced and “mathematics becomes relevant for children when teachers highlight connections to the children’s funds of knowledge” (NCTM 2020; Gutiérrez and Irving 2012). There are multiple entry points and these routines allow children to bring their own experiences, stories, and backgrounds into the math space.

Parents, some routines that you could incorporate at home could be-

The strategy that usually gets the most pushback is Strategy #3 -

Strategy #3 - Stopping the timed tests

I know one reason that this gets a lot of pushback from teachers and parents is because this was memorable for us and we are trying to make connections between our own learning and that or our children. Many people vividly remember taking these timed tests when in elementary school but as Boaler states, “as long as we keep putting students under pressure to recall facts at speed we will not erase the widespread anxiety and dislike of mathematics” (Boaler p.38).

I have talked to adults who remember becoming physically sick in elementary school in order to avoid taking timed tests. I remember my peers and I getting really nervous right before a timed test. Even still, when I first started teaching 3rd grade, I gave timed tests. Almost every teacher in my school gave them. I think back on these early days in my career and wonder why? Why would we ever want children to have these anxiety inducing experiences? Why did we want to incorrectly teach children that math ability is only connected to speed?

Research now indicates that for “about ⅓ of students, the onset of timed testing is the beginning of math anxiety” (Boaler p.38).

These traditional 30 problems in a minute and a half or whatever the ratio might be don’t even give accurate information about how a child is thinking about and approaching a problem - for that ⅓ of students, the amygdala has taken over and their working memory is not accessible for the duration of the test.

I used to be responsible for this onset, and am guilty of watching my own students start to panic-with some breaking down in tears if their pencil tip broke in the middle of the test or if they all of a sudden couldn’t remember 2x3.

But as the famous poet Maya Angelou said, “when you know better, do better,” and after three years of watching my students suffer through these timed tests, I learned more about how the brain works and found some research based equitable strategies to replace timed tests.

Designing positive experiences for students, including strategies that value and make student thinking visible- like the formative assessment strategies of interviews and journaling is what we should be doing instead of timed tests.

These both access student funds of knowledge and help children know that there is not a time limit on their thinking.

These formative assessments also help you as a teacher get to know how students are making sense of problems.

There’s a great article from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics that I reference in my work as a coach a lot-called, Assessing Basic Fact Fluency by Gina Kling and Jennifer M. Bay-Williams.

This goes into more details about the limitations of timed tests while advocating for using formative assessment techniques in their place, including those that I just mentioned.

Teachers - share this article with your teaching partners and your principal. Start a dialogue about stopping timed tests and changing to some of these alternative practices. If you have already moved away from timed tests, share some of your success stories with the larger teaching community.

Parents, I recommend that you read this too and then share this article with your child’s teacher. Find out the schools’ and district’s stance on timed testing.

We have to partner together for the well being of our children.

Interventions if the math anxiety is already present

If you have children at home or students in your classroom that you know are already suffering from math anxiety, there are some interventions you can try in addition to the 3 strategies mentioned in this episode.

One suggestion is to introduce a column writing activity. On assignments and in a math journal, students draw a line from top to bottom on the page creating two columns. On the left hand side is where they can write their mathematical thinking. On the right hand side is where students write down how they are feeling. This way, information about how students are approaching the mathematics, how they feel while completing the task, and questions that they might not be saying out loud all have the chance to be expressed. This also means that students are continuing to work without giving up -

if they get stuck on the task that’s on the left hand side, they can help keep their working memory accessible by moving over to the right side to write their feelings. Ultimately they are still working on and thinking about the math.

Another technique is to have them write their worries on a blank piece of paper before taking a test. This can help children take their minds off of any fears while they’re working.

Before an assessment or longer task, teachers can also incorporate calming breathing exercises or fun group dancing videos. Some examples are Go Noodle and Cosmic Kids Yoga on Youtube.

But these are not limited to the classroom! Parents try these out with your kids at home too! They are a lot of fun and a great way to

reduce anxiety.

Each week you are taking another step to encourage and position kids for competence and success with mathematics. Continue to read books about mathematicians with kids and to talk about math at home.

We have the power to help change the narrative and internal dialogue for our children- when speaking about math and one another in a positive light without judgements, we can reduce math anxiety and help our kids craft an identity built by positive experiences around math- ones where they are competent and capable and not evaluated on speed.

Which strategy mentioned will you commit to starting this week? Email me at kidsmathtalk@gmail.com or tweet me @kidsmathtalk to let me know. And remember to take a deep breath- this is a mindset change and it is going to take some time. Know that I am here to support you and we are together on this journey to create positive Kids Math Talk.

(Do you have Math Anxiety? Take a quick questionnaire to find out.)

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Click here for the I am a Strong Math Partner Bookmarks

Head to Episode 3: Pausing to Move Forward

Print and Electronic Sources:

Beilock, S. (2019, October 24). Americans Need to Get Over Their Fear of Math. Retrieved June 19, 2020, from https://hbr.org/2019/10/americans-need-to-get-over-their-fear-of-math

Blazer, C. (2011, August 31). Strategies for Reducing Math Anxiety. Information Capsule. Volume 1102. Retrieved June 19, 2020, from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED536509

Boaler, J. (2016). Mathematical mindsets: Unleashing students' potential through creative math, inspiring messages, and innovative teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass & Pfeiffer Imprints.

Bourassa, F. et al (n.d.). Which One Doesn't Belong? Retrieved June 19, 2020, from


CosmicKidsYoga. (n.d.). Cosmic Kids Yoga. Retrieved June 19, 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/user/CosmicKidsYoga

GoNoodle. (n.d.). Retrieved June 19, 2020, from https://www.gonoodle.com/

Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Kling, G., & Bay-Williams, J. M. (2014). Assessing Basic Fact Fluency. Teaching Children Mathematics, 20(8), 488. doi:10.5951/teacchilmath.20.8.0488.

McCoy, A. C., Barnett, J., & Combs, E. (2013). High-yield routines for grades K-8. Reston, Va: NCTM, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Tobias, S., & Weissbrod, C. (1980). Anxiety and Mathematics: An Update. Harvard Educational Review,50(1), 63-70. doi:10.17763/haer.50.1.xw483257j6035084



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