In the world of education, there are generally very specific criteria for judging a student’s academic performance. Grades are given, averages are calculated, and letters are assigned on report cards. When problems arise, there are names and numbers that identify disabilities of many different types, from reading problems to processing issues. However, there are times where, despite the established criteria, a student’s performance does not meet up with their expected achievement. In these cases, there can be a related problem affecting the student’s work.
The study of mathematics is one subject area where many students experience a related personal issue that affects their academic performance. In the current educational climate, math is an area where students are commonly pushed to the limits of their capabilities in order to perform well on high-stakes testing and other assessments. This pressure, combined with the frantic pace of the curriculum to support these goals, often leads to student achievement problems. In many cases, the combination of these forces produces the syndrome known as “math anxiety”.
Math anxiety is a real phenomenon and can manifest in many forms, from mild nervousness before tests to crippling anxiety that arises at the mere thought of computation. Depending on the severity of the anxiety, students under the influence of this academic problem tend to show common symptoms including memory problems, stomach aches, headaches, inability to retain information, avoidance behaviors, depression, self-doubt, muscle twitching, and other physical or psychological phenomena that are not medically-based.
Regardless of which type is evident in your student, math anxiety hides a student’s true ability and becomes a circular pattern of behavior that can seriously impact students’ self-image and academic performance.
The root of math anxiety may stem from multiple sources and are specific to the individual student who experiences the symptoms. Some students fear failure when the topic is difficult to them. Other students fear repeating failure after experiencing difficulty with mathematics in the past. Still, other students learn to have anxiety about mathematics as concepts become more and more complex to them, without true understanding ever truly being developed. Regardless of the source, if not caught early, math anxiety can be increasingly destructive to the student’s academic performance and self-esteem.
So what should you do if you believe your child is experiencing math anxiety?
Here are a few steps to take to help relieve the pressure from your child and make academic life more manageable:
1. Discuss the issue with your child’ math teacher. Teachers often have some flexibility regarding how they pace and teach different concepts, allowing more time for more difficult concepts. Also, the teacher may have before or after school help sessions that your child can attend to help with difficult math lessons. Finally, good communication with the teacher will help you to know when tests, quizzes, and new material are scheduled so that you can be prepared to help at home. Some teachers can even provide “reteaching” sheets that you can do at home with your child to help their skill level improve.
2. Set aside time each night for math. Make mathematics part of your daily homework routine with your child. When new material is introduced, try having your child teach you what they learned that day in class. On nights when there is no new material, take a few minutes to review the material they have learned in the past few lessons so they are ready to go on well prepared. By working on math concepts a little every night, learning new concepts is less daunting than letting problems pile up a week at a time. Have your child bring their math book home each night so that you can learn along with them.
3. Set reasonable goals. If your child is not an A-level math student, don’t pressure them to be one. You can see how much effort your child is putting into their studies, and what their best effort is. If you see that your child’s best performance is earning a C+ on tests, then don’t press for an A. It is always good to have positive goals, but making realistic goals is essential to building good self-esteem. No one, including students, like being measured against goals they cannot likely meet.
4. Be positive about mathematics in your home. Many people suffer from math phobias. Too often people say, “I’m not good at math,” or “I was never good at math.” These ideas will definitely be heard and internalized by your child. Instead of promoting negativity, try putting a more positive spin on your thoughts by saying, “I really want to learn the new math you’re learning in school,” or “I hope you can help me learn more about math.” Don’t be afraid to say when you don’t understand a concept; try hitting the Internet for tutorial sessions on almost any topic, where you and your child can learn together.
5. Do things other than math. It may be tempting to spend all of your free time trying to fix the issue that is creating the most stress in your life. However, be sure that your child still has time to participate in fun activities. Release of stress through sports, youth group activities, music lessons, and other fun activities can help your child regain a sense of balance in their lives. While it is essential that you don’t over-schedule your child’s free time, be sure to include several fun activities throughout the week to be positive reinforcers for good effort.
6. Seek outside help if necessary. There are times where the love and support of a family are not enough to help a child through their anxiety. If you feel that your child is not making positive progress over time, if they have significant mood or personality changes, or if you have concerns beyond one academic area, it is essential you seek professional help. In these circumstances, you can contact a guidance counselor, school psychologist, pediatrician, therapist, or other professional to help you and your child work through the difficulty.
Regardless of the severity or causation, math anxiety is one of the most common school-related issues faced by children today. If left unrecognized, it can have long-lasting effects on academic progress and self-esteem. However, with a little knowledge and a lot of effort, you can help your child overcome their problems and be successful and happy with their personal achievements. As a family, you can do it!
"I believe that families' involvement in their child's education is one of the key ingredients to creating a successful school experience for children. Keeping parents informed about school-related issues helps parents and teachers work together for the best possible outcomes for their children. Learning together makes learning fun - for everyone!" - Jennifer Cummings.
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