What is Math Anxiety? And Why Should Every Teacher Know About It?
What is math anxiety, and what can we do about it as teachers?
There’s no doubt that anxiety, and particularly math anxiety, is on the rise in students.
As common as it’s becoming, it’s still widely misunderstood – and honestly, not talked about too often among teachers in an official capacity.
So in this blog post, teacher to teacher, I’m breaking down exactly what math anxiety is, and why every single teacher needs to know about it.
Want the Podcast Version?
Table of Contents
In this episode of the Learning to Love Math Podcast, I share an overview of what math anxiety is, and how it’s affected me personally.
I also share some ways we can identify math anxiety in students, and how we can tell if we’re experiencing it ourselves.
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Is Math Anxiety Even Real?
Before we dive into the definition of math anxiety, and how it affects students, we need to answer and address the elephant in the room: is math anxiety even real?
Is math anxiety a real thing that we actually need to worry about as teachers?
And if math anxiety IS real, how can we recognize it and start to actually do something about it?
Then, there are the questions of: is there actually anything that we can do about math anxiety as teachers?
If so, what would that look like, and where we do start?
Yes – Math Anxiety is Definitely Real
I’ll save you the time and indecision: math anxiety is real, for sure.
I’ve often heard educational and mental professionals address it as “just anxiety,” that happens in response to math learning and performance tasks.
…but when we say that, it almost diminishes the impact of anxiety on learning, and makes it sound like anxiety is just some normal, everyday thing that we “just need to learn with.”
As someone who has struggled with anxiety her whole life, I call bologna on that.
Yes – students are strong, flexible, and resilient – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t negatively impacted, or even plagued, by anxiety they face every day in response to classroom stimuli.
It’s so real, in fact, that the American Psychology Association has a dedicated entry to it.
Effects of Math Anxiety
I’m sure all teachers would agree that just a student struggling with school academically is reason enough to care.
But in case you or someone you know doesn’t believe that this is a real problem, let’s talk about the HUGE butterfly effect math anxiety has on students, schools, teachers, and greater society.
How Math Anxiety Affects Academic Performance
The negative impacts of math anxiety on a student’s academic performance is probably the most apparent and visible problem.
If a student has elevated stress, panic attacks, or even just negative emotions in response to math, then it’s going to impact their ability to “learn” and “do” math.
But in case it helps to have more concrete examples, let’s dive into this a bit more.
The Problem of Anxiety is Enough to Address
Before I get into how the impacts of math anxiety make others’ lives harder, I just want for this to be said:
A student experiencing anxiety is enough reason to act on it.
All too often, in the education world, we try to quantify things and thing of how they impact the “learning environment,” or we assess and make students into numbers.
Gosh, I hate that – don’t you?
Students are people.
So if a student is struggling, that’s enough reason to know about math anxiety and address it – whether you recognize math anxiety as a thing on its own, or just see it as general anxiety that students experience.
Still, it’s important for us to understand the complications math anxiety causes – and in case you need external evidence to persuade others to take action, let’s dive into this a bit more.
Math Anxiety Keeps Kids from Learning
Let’s consider the learning process.
Typically, teachers will either start a lesson with an engaging, hands-on application of whatever it is they’re learning. This is especially true if they’re practicing the 5E Model of Teaching and Learning.
You can learn more about this model of teaching and learning on the Learning to Love Math Podcast.
It’s definitely a different way to teach if you’re used to a more traditional style of front-of-the-room direct instruction!
If you’d rather read and not listen to learn about the 5E Model, check out this blog post, too.
Once the student realizes that a math lesson has started, or that one’s ABOUT to start, the physical, mental and emotional impacts of anxiety will already start to take a toll on the student.
They might become withdrawn, agitated, or even physically sick.
And, perhaps even more disappointing than that, it makes the development of mathematical skills and practices viewed with a negative light when students.
When you take something that’s already difficult, and take ALL of the fun and motivation out of it, you start out every math block trying to run a marathon up a steep hill with both feet tied together.
How Math Anxiety Causes Misbehavior in Students
Teachers and administrators are often surprised to find that math anxiety might be the cause of misbehavior, and even violent behavior, in students.
Many students with math anxiety will even act out when it’s time for math (or when they anticipate it’s coming), just so they can get out of it.
This is because students view math as an actual threat to their well-being that they need to escape.
This is a great reminder that behavior is always a form of communication, especially when we think about the fact that many students struggle to articulate their emotions.
When students feel sad, scared, or even angry, and they can’t tell us? That makes them even more frustrated and disconnected from the learning.
This is further exacerbated by any possible language barriers, disabilities, or undeveloped vocabulary – so learning to observe behaviors and examine their causes and triggers is one of the best things we can do as a teacher.
So if you notice a student always acts out or misbehaves during this time of day, consider whether math anxiety might be the cause.
Math Anxiety Can Lead to Truancy and Absenteeism
As mentioned above, anxiety can make students physically sick.
I recently had a panic attack. Not realizing what it was, I legitimately thought I was having a heart attack, and that I might actually be dying, at 33.
I was TERRIFIED.
So I can only imagine how a student might feel experiencing a panic attack, or other physical manifestations of math anxiety.
There are so many ways anxiety can show up in the body.
Some physical effects of math anxiety are:
- Breathing rapidly (and eventually, hyperventilation)
- Stomach issues – including nausea, indigestion or vomiting
- GI issues, including diarrhea
- Trouble sleeping
- Inability to concentrate
And these are just a FEW physical symptoms we might see in students as teachers.
When we look at the symptoms, it’s easier to see why students might be consistently absent from school.
Their anxiety-related issues might be diagnosed as other kinds of sickness.
Or, just the thought of going to school and doing math leads to so much stress, that students try to stay home to avoid anxiety and what comes of it.
Math Anxiety Negatively Impacts Students Socially
When we think of all of the possible implications that can come as a result of the physical symptoms of anxiety, we start to see how this could affect students socially.
If a student withdraws just before or during math, they might be seen by other students as “dumb,” or not interested in connecting with them – or the student might even just have the FEAR of being seen as dumb, which is enough to add to their already existing anxiety.
When a student experiences a physical manifestation of anxiety that they might consider embarrassing or socially isolating (like diarrhea, for example), the student could then have a traumatic experience that they connect to math, learning and school – increasing anxiety in future situations.
There could be actual teasing or bullying as a result of these items or well, just making the situation even worse.
Math Anxiety Definition
Math anxiety is more than just “a type of anxiety” – although that alone would be reason enough to research it more.
The University of Cambridge defines mathematics anxiety as “a negative emotional reaction to mathematics.”
I don’t think anyone could define it more simply than that – and yet, it has so many possible implications.
It’s not just the problem-solving or computational steps in math that brings students to a state of anxiety; even just the mention of math, or the perception by the student that they’ll need to “do math,” can be enough to elevate them to a negative state.
Causes of Math Anxiety
There are many causes and triggers for math anxiety in students.
Here’s a list of different math anxiety causes:
- Applied (or even implied) pressure due to timed tests.
This is a major reason many teachers and educational professionals cite as far as why they don’t facilitate timed tests for math facts (like multiplication facts and division facts).
But what many don’t understand, is that it’s not necessarily the act of testing, or the content on the test, that stressed students to the point of anxiety.
Yes, those are parts of it – but the reaction really comes from the overt or covert pressure.
This pressure can come from teachers, administrators, parents, school boards, the state, or even just society, for a myriad of different reasons.
This is because students add so much more meaning to the test on top of measuring and assessing understanding.
There’s an added risk of the change in social status as a result of their test scores, so this becomes a social and emotional issue.
- Negative punishments, or even positive rewards, linked to test score results.
It makes sense why the idea of getting punished or getting a lower grade might result in some sort of anxiety. But it might surprise you to find that it goes the other way, too.
If there are rewards or awards that a student REALLY wants, they will have additional pressure to learn and perform.
Sometimes, this CAN be a good thing (listen to my podcast article about timed tests, and how I utilize them in fun competitions).
But over a period of time, this can turn into a source of distress – and then, maybe even feelings of inadequacy – if they never “win,” or if they constantly “lose.”
So, if you do incorporate contests and/or competitions in the classroom, it’s incredibly important to set the tone and expectations of said classroom events.
- Traumatic experiences with math.
This might be the most common cause of math anxiety.
If we really think on it, many of us can think of at least one experience in the classroom that has traumatized us.
This article dives deeper into math trauma, why we should recognize it as teachers, and how it can impact how we learn (and eventually, maybe even how we teach) math.
So, those are some of the causes of math anxiety – which are helpful, because can try to avoid facilitating experiences that might traumatize students.
But often, these causes are experienced internally – so we’re not always able to know about or recognize them.
Most of the time, we’ll only know that a student is experiencing or has experienced math anxiety, by them telling us – and/or by us observing their symptoms.
Knowing this, it’s clear how important it is that we recognize the symptoms of math anxiety.
So let’s get into that.
Math Anxiety Symptoms
What are symptoms of math anxiety?
Before we dive into general symptoms, it’s important to know that this might look different if we’re looking at younger primary students, vs older upper elementary students, vs middle school students and high school students.
For the sake of this article, I’ll share general symptoms.
But if you’re interested in seeing how these symptoms may present more specifically in the student age group that you teach, you can click on each section below for seperate articles that are more relevant to you.
We’ve already talked a bit about what students with math anxiety may be experiencing internally – so in this section, we’ll focus on external, observable, physical symptoms.
Some symptoms of math anxiety include:
- Elevated heart rate
- GI issues
- Trouble sleeping, which results in them falling asleep during class
- Withdrawing socially
- Misbehaving right before, during, or even throughout math
- Physically noticeable anger, frustration or agitation
- Excessive crying
- Negative self-talk
- Apathy towards one’s academic career or performance
When we learn to look for these symptoms, and take note of when they happen most frequently, we can start to determine what’s triggering anxiety for our students.
Since we’re not medical professionals, it’s important to note that we shouldn’t diagnose students. We’re not psychologists or psychologists.
However, knowing more about math anxiety and how it impacts our students makes us better prepared to identify and mitigate the effects of math anxiety in the classroom.
As teachers, we need to know and understand that math anxiety is definitely a real thing, and that it’s already affecting our students right now.
We also need to recognize that we as educators may even have some math anxiety or math trauma ourselves, and that this might be affecting the quality of our own instruction.
Your Next Steps
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