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3 Phrases That Contribute To Math Anxiety In Children

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3 Phrases That Contribute To Math Anxiety In Children

Math anxiety is a broad term that describes feelings of discomfort, fear and repulsion when faced with a mathematical problem. Many children and adults experience math anxiety in academic environments and in their daily lives. Often children pick up on their parents’ math anxiety and become extremely cautious about completing math tasks at school or in their daily lives. What adults often do not realize is that careless phrases that are being exchanged in front of children can contribute to the onset of math anxiety or to amplify the academic anxieties that a child might have already.

Here are three phrases that many of us have heard while growing up, and ideas on how to re-phrase them!

“I was never good at math when I was at school”

Why we say it:

It is not uncommon to hear successful adults saying the aforementioned phrase almost with a sense of pride, as though they were saying: “I wasn’t good at math, but I am very successful.”

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What children hear:

“Even the smartest people were not good at math. I have no chance to succeed at all!”

This type of interpretation is especially common in children with low levels of academic confidence or low self esteem.

Say instead:

“When I was at school I found math very challenging, especially algebra. But I didn’t give up and made it through all of my courses.”

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This formulation accentuates the fact that challenges are just opportunities to succeed and that determination to overcome these challenges is what leads to being successful later in life. This is a positive outlook which also puts the child in the mindset of growing.  Be specific about the challenges you encountered. This also makes your story more relatable for kids.

“Math? That’s too hard!”

Why we say it:

We often exaggerate our statements without considering that children often understand statements literally. We might mean that math is a challenging subject or that it is not our direct specialization, or maybe even the fact that we do not have time or mental energy to focus on math-related projects at the moment. Sometimes a statement like that is intended as a joke or an ice breaker.

What children hear:

“Math!? Impossible!”

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Children are intuitively looking for role models in adults they see around. Reinforcing that ‘math is too hard to do’ creates a stereotype that anything mathematical is not even worth approaching.

Say instead:

“Math?! I’m up for a good challenge!”

This statement creates the feeling of excitement and curiosity instead of shutting the door on math altogether. You don’t need to pretend that math comes easily to you if it simply doesn’t. you just need to convey the message that even if a task is hard there are no reasons to avoid it.

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“Math is not my thing. It’s only for geniuses.”

Why we say it:

Maybe at some point we were looking up to a person who was great at math or maybe such statement is an expression of modesty. However this statement creates a false illusion of ‘elitism’ of math.

What children hear:

“I’m not a genius. Math is not for me.”

Children are taught to be modest, and it is not likely that they will associate themselves with the term ‘genius’. They simply jump to conclusion that math is meant to be accessible only to some unreachable intellectual ‘elite’ that they do not belong to. This brings about feelings of isolation, which hinders social and academic development.

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Say instead:

“I used to know a gentleman who lived next door from me, he became quite interested in math as a college student. Now he is a famous architect.”

Recall a story that personalizes math and mathematicians for your child. Referring to someone you and your child are familiar with. This instills the idea that mathematics is accessible for anyone who is willing to put their mind to it.

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Mariya Boyko

Mathematics teacher, curriculum developer

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