Earlier this month, I spent two days attending the regional conference of The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) in Philadelphia. Having such a constant focus on math and being surrounded by teachers, instructional coaches, researchers, and product designers and developers was wonderful. Sessions and workshops spanned a variety of topics, from implementing a math workshop model in the classroom to teaching math for social justice.
Across these diverse workshop topics, I was surprised at the common theme that emerged. NCTM presenters repeatedly addressed the persistent culture of math anxiety and aversion and named it as both an obstacle and a priority. This thread wove through every activity, lecture, and informal conversation—from publishers who promised their materials would make math accessible and ease anxiety, to social researchers exploring how gender, race, and culture impact children’s math experiences and investigating the intensified math anxiety experienced by students with learning challenges. In my role as math resource teacher, I do hear students say, "I'm just bad at math," and "Ugh, I hate math!" But, seeing math anxiety viewed as a major hindrance to student math success—at all levels, all over the country—was stunning.
What’s the Answer?
When teachers think about designing math programs, we focus on achievement, think about assessment, and work hard to differentiate in our classrooms to meet all students where they are. Ensuring a healthy emotional state is not necessarily at the top of the to-do list. Yet the mandate was clear: creating a successful math classroom has to include attention to the emotional climate for all students and offer healing opportunities for kids whose math anxiety tells them they can’t do it.
Negative emotions around math need to be directly addressed and decreased first, so that all students will be more engaged, become independent drivers of their own learning, and make the most of their strengths. We want our students to view the math classroom as a safe space for high level thinking, risk taking, problem solving, and mistake making. But, we have to teach, model, and nurture those skills within a math context.
A Call to Action
Seeing math aversion as a powerful force that can undermine daily work in the math classroom felt like a call to action. During the two day conference, there were many moments when I identified best practices that Lowell already uses to address math anxiety. For example, at Lowell we work to create and nurture a growth mindset in all our students. This means helping them see the difference between not knowing something and not knowing something yet, and then giving students the space and time and confidence to acquire that knowledge.
Still, there is always room for growth, and there are additional action steps we can take both at home and school to help.
Ideas for Teachers
- Follow a math workshop model in the classroom. This way, you can deliver flexible instruction in very small groups.
- Begin lessons with well-organized warm-ups that have multiple correct answers and take time to seek several perspectives. Starting this way sets the tone for the class.
- Allow students plenty of think time so they grow accustomed to figuring things out independently. Get out of the habit of “rescuing” students too soon.
- Leave space for reflection after a lesson. Encourage risk-taking and deep listening so students benefit from others’ strategies and solutions.
- Set clear expectations for materials, procedures, and transitions within the math workshop space, so students feel more confident about how to proceed.
- Experiment with technology that can support learners, lessen the amount of writing and other activities that might be a challenge, and help students see the math concepts a new way.
- Provide a scaffold of support and direct modeling for students on how to ask for clarification and share ideas in the math classroom. “I see how you solved that; here’s what I did instead…” or “Can you explain how you did that?”
Ideas for Parents
- Connect students to real-life math applications that mean something to them—building scale models, leaving a tip at a restaurant—so they see math alive outside the classroom.
- Allow your child plenty of think time so they grow accustomed to figuring things out independently. Get out of the habit of “rescuing” your child when they don’t get to an answer immediately.
- Enjoy math with your child. There are many games you can play together to keep it fun—dominoes and backgammon are two.
- Relate your child’s interests to math. Does your child follow sports or politics? Plenty of math there! If your child likes gaming, learning to code might be a win-win.
- Commit to being math-positive in your language with children. It may seem supportive to say, “I wasn’t good at math either at your age” or “You get it from me, I don’t like math either,” but this language reinforces a fixed mindset and validates the anxiety a child might already feel. Instead, be a math myth-buster and use language that encourages children to persist, try different problem-solving strategies, and ask for help when needed. Read more about How to Make Sure Your Math Anxiety Doesn't Make Your Kids Hate Math.