“Math is hard.”
“I’m terrible with numbers.”
“My dad’s not good at math and neither am I.”
This self-defeating talk is common for kids who struggle with math, and it often leads to low self-esteem and lower performance in school. Students’ stress about math can even become so overwhelming that it makes it impossible for them to concentrate during class. If you’re seeing signs of math anxiety in the students in your classroom, keep reading to find ways you can help them succeed.
1. Start with small wins
When students feel like they are continually failing at math, their natural inclination is to stop trying or avoid it at all costs. However, the opposite is true as well. Students who consistently feel like they’re succeeding at math tasks can build strong self-concepts and belief in their abilities.
Start small and find ways for students to be successful to help pave the way for them to learn more complicated concepts.
- Try not to launch headlong into difficult math problems, stressful timed tests, or competitions. If you are sensing math anxiety, try starting every class period by reviewing simple math facts. Even older students can use the refresher and warmups to get them thinking mathematically.
- Give students several “phone a friend” passes so that when they don’t know the correct answer in class, they have a fun way to extricate themselves from a stressful situation.
- Compliment students on their efforts and not on their correct answers. This will cultivate resiliency, perseverance, and a growth mindset. You could say, for example, “I saw how hard you worked on this problem, and I liked how you lined up the numbers in the ones place, the tens place, and the hundreds place. That makes them easier to add.”
- When you notice students who usually struggle do something correctly (even if it’s just one step in a problem), praise them publicly, verbalize what they did, and ask them to show the class or a partner how they did it.
2. Create positive math experiences
Some students wouldn’t associate the word “fun” with math. But you can show them that working with numbers can be enjoyable. Positive interactions and games that take some of the stress out of math class can help shift students’ attitudes.
- Mix art and math by doing drawing exercises with numbers. Have students choose their favorite number and turn the number into a character or characters by adding facial features, hands, feet, etc. Then, have students pair up to talk about their numbers, add or subtract them, and so on. Older students will enjoy this exercise too, as it will create a relaxed environment and build relationships. You can extend this activity into writing time by having students write a story about their characters.
- End class with a math “temperature check.” Have students fill out a Google form letting you know if they feel good about their math abilities that day, feel like they’re making progress, or don’t feel confident in their abilities. Watch for trends and use it to inform your approaches to lessons.
- Throughout the week, note something that each student did right during math class (it may just be they just kept their eyes on the board while you were explaining a problem or that they refrained from talking to their neighbor). At the end of the week, write a quick personal note to each student about what you liked about their behavior or work that week.
- If time allows, use the concept above to send notes home to students in the mail. Students love to get mail, and it will make them proud to show their parents something positive, especially if they are used to having negative feelings toward math.
- Incorporate games into math practice. You can ease the competition pressure by creating teams with partners who can help each other. Explore these games that show students that numbers can be fun:
- Elementary Single Player Math Game Set: Students can play these games with partners or individually before school, during downtime, after-school or anytime!
- Addition Dominoes: Students will enjoy practicing addition by matching problems to their sums while they build a domino train.
- Multiplication Splat™: Players lay their cards faceup in front of them. As the caller reads out answers to the problem, players scan their cards for problems that match. If they have a match, they turn their card over — “splat!”
- Pizza Fraction Fun™ Game: Fractions are more fun when they involve food! This clever game teaches fraction concepts and skills to different levels of learners with six games in one. Students can practice identifying fractions, matching fraction equivalents, and fraction addition and subtraction.
- Algebraic Expressions and Equations Dominoes: This set of dominoes reinforces algebraic expressions and equations and makes practicing these concepts more enjoyable.
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3. Make it visual
One cause of math anxiety is learners’ inability to envision abstract math concepts. Math manipulatives are one of the best ways teachers have found to help students young and old use concrete objects to understand abstract concepts.
- Fractions can be difficult to grasp, but visual representations can make them much clearer. Try using tools such as Fraction Tower® Fraction Cubes. These color-coded cubes help students build simple models to understand parts of a whole and equivalent fractions.
- SumBlox are solid wood number blocks that are each the relative size of their numerical value. This helps students see relationships between numbers and develop skills such as counting, addition, subtraction, multiplying, and more. The SumBlox Basic Set includes 80 activity cards for continuous practice.
- Students can work in pairs or small groups using the Nasco Complete Algebra Tiles™ Classroom Kit to explore integers, equations, and algebraic expressions, as well as factoring and expanding.
- The Lénárt Sphere™ Basic Geometry Set provides a hands-on way for students to move beyond flat geometry. Using the Lénárt Sphere, students can explore geometry as it applies to the surface of the Earth.
4. Offer several levels of support
Students have different life factors that affect their day-to-day work and test-taking abilities, including neurodivergence, trauma outside of school, or simply hunger. You can feel confident that you’re doing the right thing by providing as much support as needed and building in temporary scaffolds where appropriate. In the end, engaging students in math and building their confidence will be the most important steps you take to ease their math anxiety.
- Free up some of your students’ working memory by displaying math formulas where they can see them and have them write formulas in their math journals to refer to.
- Allow students to use math journals or practice tests when taking formal tests so they can compare test problems to their previous work.
- Keep homework assignments small so students don’t feel overwhelmed.
- Rotate students through test-taking in smaller groups.
- Offer a calm, quiet environment that includes soothing biophilic elements for test-taking.
- Offer different workspace choices and let students choose where to sit (or stand) to do their work.
Remember the huge impact you’re already making
The work you do every day has such an important influence on your students. Your love of mathematics and your belief in your students’ abilities to grow are some of the best supports you can give them.
Continue to encourage your students by vocalizing that it’s okay if they don’t always have the right answer and remind them of how they’ve succeeded in the past. Not every student will end up loving math, but your efforts will help dispel their math anxiety so they can continue to build their skills.