How to Help Your Children Avoid Math Anxiety

Learning to calculate, high five success, black mother and child.

How to Help Your Children Avoid Math Anxiety

A recent study published in Psychology Research and Behavior Management found that 93% of American adults experience math anxiety. This math anxiety affects their ability to perform math problems, solve math-related every day issues and even impacts their vocational choices. It is believed that this anxiety originates all the way back in how math was first learned. The nature of timed tests, complex equations, formulas, and memorization of times tables may have provided the foundation for this math anxiety and feelings of inadequacy when it comes to math.

Why Math is Important

It is very unfortunate that this math anxiety affects vocational choices. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that math-related careers are expected to grow 30% in the next ten years. That is much faster than the average job market. The mean salary for careers in the math world is over $88,000 per year.

We cannot perpetuate this math anxiety and pass it onto our children! We need to be mindful and empowering in how we teach math to our children because we want our children to be successful and have every opportunity available to them, but also because the world needs mathematicians and statisticians to analyze the increasing volume of statistical, digital and electronic data. Math is also a foundation for hundreds of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) related fields. This field is expected to grow 28.2% by 2024!

Recently a panel of experts assembled by the Institute for the Future determined that 85% of the jobs that will be held in 2030 have not even been invented yet! We have to prepare our children for anything. It would be a huge disservice to them to keep passing on this math anxiety.

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Tips for Helping Children Avoid Math Anxiety

1. It is never too early to start!

Math is integral component of so many early skills. Anything that involves counting, sequencing, patterning, or exploring shapes, size, or volume is an early math skill. Without even knowing it, babies and toddlers use these skills constantly during play and exploration.

Babies begin to hear in utero before their ears even form. Around 18 weeks gestation, the inner ear begins to form and babies are able to process sounds. The fist sound they hear in utero is the sound of mommy’s heartbeat resonating through the amniotic fluid. This repetitive sound is rhythm and rhythm is early math. Rhythms are also a form of patterns, another early math skill.

Every time a child finds a pattern, counts items, lines up items in a row, makes matches, puts items together into pairs or finds and identifies numbers, they are learning early math concepts.

2. Be intentional when discussing math concepts.

The language we use when discussing math concepts, even to tiny babies begins to build a familiarity with simple math concepts. Narrate your child’s play or narrate what you are doing and incorporate math and spatial words. “You added two blocks to your tower so now it is taller.”

3. Present math “problems” that do not have a definite answer, but are open-ended.

Ask your children how many different ways they can fold a napkin while setting the table for dinner. Talk about all the different shapes they can make with the napkin. Count the sides and corners, compare and contrast the shapes and sizes. Ask your child how many blocks they can fit into an empty cereal box. Try different combinations to make different sizes fit. Stress the fact that there is not one correct answer. There are lots of different ways to fit several blocks into the box in different configurations.

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4. Play math games.

Any board game that requires counting squares utilizes math skills. Puzzles are great for establishing spatial skills and perceptual skills. Plus, they avoid math anxiety by keeping it in a game. Make patterns during play. Line up a dog, a chicken, a zebra, a dog, a chicken, a zebra while playing with plastic animals. Tap out sound patterns on the table while waiting for your food at a restaurant or line up the sugar packets, white, yellow, pink, white, yellow, pink . . .

5. Avoid math anxiety by keeping it positive.

Your child will follow your lead. Resist the urge to roll your eyes when your first grader asks for help with math homework. Try not to do math drills or time math fact homework. Make it as concrete and practical as possible. Count out goldfish crackers, then subtract three, eat the three and count how many are left. Offer lots of praise where math is involved.

Hopefully with this new awareness, those of us with math anxiety can set that aside to give our babies the confidence the need to figure out that 2 + 2 still equals 4!

About the Author /

Dr. Aimee Ketchum is a pediatric occupational therapist and has been working in pediatrics for 20 years. Ketchum works in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at UPMC Pinnacle Hospital and lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania with her husband and two daughters. Ketchum is also the owner/operator of Aimee’s Babies LLC, a child development company.

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