Eight Steps to Ease Homeschool Math Anxiety and Increase Confidence

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Homeschool parents! You can help your kids conquer math anxiety. Here's how. | Pamela Price for RedWhiteandGrew.com

Math anxiety. I’ve had it most of my life. Even when we first talked about homeschooling, it was only the idea of math that made me feel queasy looking toward the future.

Curiously this inborn anxiety coexists with a decent academic math record. Twice in my K-12 years I was placed in special, accelerated math programs. Still, I never felt comfortable with the topic.

Yes, to this day the word “math” feels weird on my tongue.

It wasn’t until I was an adult—and a homeschool parent—that I came to understand that my math anxiety can be alleviated. With this extended essay, I’m giving you the tools you need to help ease math anxiety in your household.

In this post, I’ve presented my strategy in a stepwise, 1-2-3… fashion, but you can certainly riff on this formula as you see fit. Teachers and parents of kids in public school will find this information useful (see page 5).

Please note that in this post I assume that any signs of dyscalculia or other relevant learning disabilities are already diagnosed and being addressed.

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Step 1. “Demath.”

This step is crucial, especially if you and your child have been locked in a battle of wills over math assignments. Demathing (my term) is like deschooling: everyone gets a chance to adjust attitudes and ideas about what learning can and should be.

Demathing is different than deschooling, however, in that you may continue along in other topics just as before. You’re temporarily tossing the formal math lessons.

The longer you’ve been battling your kid’s math anxiety, the longer the break you’ll need. During this time, consider strewing (a brilliant term from the unschooling community) videos and books in your child’s path that illustrate the wonders of math. Vi Hart’s videos are popular and fun (see below). Biographies about famous mathematicians and computer programmers are nifty. If your kids are open to it–and it doesn’t feel like “work” to them, invite them to check out Matific, a collection of “math mini-games” that is currently free to homeschoolers.

(Yes, Khan Academy is popular, but I honestly find most of the videos dull.)

Out-of-the-house math adventures are good, too. We lucked into attending an international math conference a few months back—complete with 3D printers and an original German enigma machine. The experience completely changed both of our perspectives on what mathematics is and can be. Vi Hart’s dad, George, was a speaker, and, as a trained art historian, I loved his talk about his sculptural “barn raisings.” Meanwhile, my kid got excited about trying a pair of fancy, virtual reality glasses in the exhibit hall.

If cutting out math cold turkey makes you anxious, keep a daily log of every time your kid does math. Divvying up a cookie into fourths to share with siblings counts. Or note whenever she watches a television show that features math. Odd Squad on PBS is wonderful for elementary aged kids {Amazon Affiliate Link}. You may be surprised at what math your kid already knows and uses daily.

In fact, some families may decide to switch to unschooling math either for the short term or permanently.

And that’s okay. Whatever works.

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Step 2: Do your own homework—and some deep thinking about the nature of math anxiety.

While your kid sits out math assignments for a few days or weeks, you’ve got important online research to do. With the help of Google, read up on recent studies about math anxiety using MRIs, specifically the work of Sian Bielock. (Samples here, here, and here.)

Guess what you’ll find when you poke around? Math anxiety, like other forms of anxiety, is a “pain in the brain.” (Thanks a lot, amygdala.) You’ll also learn that anxiety short-circuits our ability to access working memory where math problems are solved.

Think about it like this: if you’re uneasy in a job setting and your boss is being critical of your work daily, then will your assignments be perfect and your attitude chipper? Or will you be skittish or angry and more prone to making mistakes? Making an error—and worse yet feeling ashamed about it and lacking the skills to manage those emotions effectively—creates more fear.

A vicious cycle develops.

You’ve likely seen the end result in your own kid. I sure felt it growing up. When I tried to address it with teachers, the solution was “do more problems.”

Nope. That doesn’t work.

If you’ve been at loggerheads with your chronically math anxious child, accept that fussing and feuding over assignments will get the two of you nowhere. Similarly, accusing him or her of being “lazy” or throwing your hands up in frustration because they “just won’t live up to their potential” is a waste of energy. (This is especially true if your child is twice-exceptional.)

Jettison that kind of talk and thinking from within yourself, and carry no residual guilt about it as we move forward. Apologize to your child if you think it will help repair your relationship. Talk to your spouse or partner about how what the two of you say about math and your child’s ability to do math affects his or her success. Forgive yourselves and one another. Spend your personal demath time reframing the math anxiety issue in your household as a surmountable obstacle. If you’re partnered and your spouse has been a factor in the pressure put on your math anxious kid, you’re going to want to educate him or her as you go along, too.

I encourage you now, in preparation for Step 4, to watch the following short video about meditation. As you watch, consider how the thoughts and fears you have about your child’s math anxiety may have accidentally made the situation more complicated. No blame or shame! Accept and let the past go. Consider, too, how our brains can run away with us and why we must retrain them. We’ll talk about “how” to do that in Step 4.

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Step 4: Become more mindful.

Compassion and understanding about math anxiety are powerful tools for us parents to nurture within ourselves first. When we lovingly accept and acknowledge barriers within our children’s brains without judgment–and see them for the complex creatures they are, we pave the way for our kids to do the same for themselves.

What a gift to give a kid.

Working together mindfully, parents and kids can break the math anxiety cycle.

Mindfulness practices like deep breathing exercises, meditation (or contemplative prayer), and rhythmic movement (yoga, karate, hiking) are powerful tools for alleviating anxiety. As a chronically anxious person, I’m a big fan of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a type of cognitive retraining rooted in mindfulness practices that helps anxious people accept and overcome mental barriers. DBT also helps people address irrational thoughts and emotional dysregulation.

At this time there is no book on DBT for math anxiety per se, but the tips in The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook for Anxiety [ Available via Amazon] can help you shift your thoughts about anxiety and give you ideas to help your child regain control over thoughts and emotions. The text can also help you develop a daily mindfulness practice in your family.  (More books on mindfulness for kids and families–including the DBT workbook–can be found on this virtual shelf in my Amazon store.)

Amy Cuddy’s research into body language is relevant here, too. In her famous TED Talk, she discussed “power poses” that help reduce stress hormones and increase one’s sense of confidence.

I’ve discovered that her suggested poses help me with my own general anxiety and OCD. Math anxiety can prove to be comorbid with later diagnoses of anxiety disorders, as in my own case.

Therefore, what you teach now in to conquer math anxiety may prove helpful to your child later.

Bonus!

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Step 5: Ditch grade levels.

Asynchronous development is a popular term in the gifted advocacy community because it is pronounced and striking in many gifted kids. Honestly, however, I believe asynchrony is the norm in human development. People seldom develop at exactly the same rate in all subjects at the same time.

Your task, as a home educator, is to nurture the skills in your kids at a rate that suits their individual brains. Benchmarking with kids of a similar age is helpful, sure, but grade level benchmarks need not be your only metric. In fact, as long as math anxiety is an issue, the primary measure of progress needs to be whether or not you’re empowering your child to clear internal hurdles.

The problem isn’t the math. It’s the anxiety about the math.

Sometimes math anxiety can be exacerbated by the lack of a firm mathematical foundation. For example, a kid may drift along easily with basic addition only to have trouble adding three digit numbers. Any homeschool parent who encounters a sudden, out-of-the-blue run of math anxiety should consider backing up mathematically first before pushing any further forward.

Dropping back an entire grade to review and refine knowledge acquired earlier can build confidence and firm up fundamentals. Trust me: the world will not come to a screeching halt if you and your kid take a break and roll back a little bit. Your child’s journey is her journey. Some kids take the scenic route and circle back to see some old sites.

That’s okay.

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Step 6: Decide what is most important for your child to learn about math in the next six weeks.

You’ve pushed aside the idea of grade levels. So what do you do if you want to have a daily, formal math practice?

For starters, ask yourself some questions.

Do you want your kid to learn his or her multiplication tables? Master fractions? Tackle geometry? Sit with a workbook without a shouting match?

Start with a narrow set of achievable math goals—the narrower the better if you want to see your child both succeed and build upon that success. Chances are that once the math anxiety is managed, your kid will clear those modest academic goals easily. You can make new ones together. Until then, you need to help your kid develop a math practice that is challenging, conquerable, and engaging. (Remember when I talked about “flow“? Same idea. You want to get the kid some low hanging fruit and move them as close to the flow state as possible.)

Older children may have ideas in mind after the demath period about what kinds of math they’d like to study. This may result in further research or projects. I can’t think of a better way to increase one’s sense of “I can do it” (a.k.a sense of self-efficacy) than to tackle a topic that seems interesting.

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Step 7: Discover how your child best learns math.

You’ll figure this out from close, quiet observation in the demath stage and from previous homeschooling experience. Are your kids “hands on” learners? Manipulatives may be useful to have on hand. A friend gave our son a playful multiplication cube that helped him see the task as enjoyable. Does your daughter like colorful workbook pages more than black-and-white pages? Make the adjustment. Is your son a kid who likes to answer questions out loud while moving? Then hit the basketball court and call out questions out to him.

Determining your child’s True Colors personality profile can be handy, too. An explanation of True Colors in an education context is here.

An excerpt from the Education World story:

True Colors sorts people into four colors, although no one is exclusively one color. The system uses the following colors to represent specific personality types:
• Gold: These are people who tend to be orderly, dependable, thrive on structure, and enjoy helping others; most teachers are Golds, according to True Colors information.
• Blue: They are sensitive, empathetic, loyal, and enthusiastic.
• Green: These are the analytical, logical, and intellectual types; they become irritated with drill and routine.
• Orange: Generally, they are people who are active, competitive, energetic, and impulsive. They seek variety and dislike rules.

Greens and Oranges*—the True Colors types prone to having strong imaginations and being resistant to traditional methods—present a real challenge to Gold homeschooling Moms and Dads.

This seems to be especially true in math.

Anecdotally I’ve found that verbally gifted children with strong emotional or imaginational overexcitabilities are prone to math anxiety. They may engage in irrational thoughts, or “stinking thinking.” If so, that is a complicating factor and needs to be addressed. The good news? Cognitive behavior therapy or DBT (mentioned above) can help with that as well as any emotional dysregulation issues. A counselor trained in one of these approaches can help.

Experts say that math anxiety appears to crop around the age of 7. The good news is that around this age most kids are able to articulate verbally how they like to learn. If asked, kids 7 and up may tell you that math is only interesting to them if presented in a familiar, light-hearted format.

This means computers, rights? And maybe a board game or two?

Our household learning lab is filled with a mix of Orange, Green, and Blue folks; we always factor the adults in as “learners.” (Aren’t you reading this post to learn how to help your kid? See? We’re all learners!) Here at home we’ve tried pairing colorful workbooks with a variety of apps and games. Currently we have two favorites computer-based games. Prodigy offers a variety of grade-level math problems and allows parents to make specific assignments as well as track progress. Timez Attack teaches addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division and includes review periods.

Parents can further “gamify” math assignments by building in rewards after a certain number of sessions coupled with a reasonable, resilient, can-do attitude during them (“fake it ’til you make it,” as Cuddy says in the above TED talk).

For example, right now the “formula” for a math reward here at home is:

4 rounds of Timez Attack X 5 days per week = 20 rounds

The reward? An Amazon Digital purchase of a new Doctor Who episode.

Worth every penny.

(Plus, Peter Capaldi!)

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Step 8: Reintroduce math practice slowly and mindfully.

If you decide to return to daily math practice after demathing awhile, then go s-l-o-w-l-y. Whatever math topic (or topics) you decide to emphasize when upon return, introduce only a handful of problems each day. This helps minimize risk of overwhelming your child.

You will also want to pair the practice with movement or a guided meditation practice.  Prayer works well for some families. This may seem awkward at first–to move, meditate, or pray before math time, but with practice it gets easier. It works because it helps reintegrate the mind and the body. Done together, it can also help you reconnect with your child.

Remember Sian Beilock? She and Daniel Willingham recommend a reflective journal practice. You might use a prompt like this one: “Take 10 minutes to write about how you feel about math practice. What emotions do you feel? Why? How might you overcome them?” If a child struggles with writing, then take dictation or encourage him or her to draw how he or she feels. If you take dictation, don’t interject your thoughts or feelings into this, though. Let the words flow and be his or hers alone.

Placing written affirmations (“I can do math,” “I can overcome my fear of anxiety,” or “I can train my brain to do math”) visibly in the space where you do schoolwork can be helpful. Practice saying encouraging words aloud yourself. Repeat them reassuringly to your child when she gets “stuck.” Examples include: “You are making progress” and “You were frustrated. I saw that on your face and in your body posture. But you worked your way through the problem and completed it. Good work.”

Experts tell us that reviewing a concept a few hours after being introduced to it helps make the material “sticky.” For this reason, a few problems in the morning and a few in the afternoon are optimal. Five and five for a total of ten daily is fine.

Note that children with severe math anxiety may need to make it through a week or two where they do only one or two problems at a time once a day. The emphasis on these early sessions needs to be on mindfully approaching the task.  Accuracy and a deeper understanding of the math process will increase with time and practice, typically within a couple of weeks.

If not, then consider a formal evaluation for a learning disability just to be safe.

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That’s all it–all of my best, hard-earned, thoroughly researched and personally vetted advice to you on homeschooling a kid with math anxiety.

Now I invite you to tell me in comments what has worked–and not worked–for your math anxious child.

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About this Post & Acknowledgements

Sharing my thoughts via a private online forum last week about this topic, I was encouraged to write this comprehensive, in-depth post. The strategies are based upon direct experience, stories others have shared, and research. Much of the research I conducted because I couldn’t find any existing single resource (book or web resource) that adequately answered my specific questions. Most of what I read in books that discussed “math anxiety” seemed off-base.

Turns out that a lot of it was outdated and didn’t include current research. In my life, if I need it but can’t find it, I tend to end up researching and writing about it in some shape or form. And here we are.

Math educator extraordinaire Barry Gelston, beginning with a chat that we had during a conference last summer, has been influential in my thinking on this topic. He deserves a nod of appreciation. (Thanks, Barry!) Credit as well to my own “homeschool coach,” a math-loving woman named Pam who encouraged me when my son was very young to “see math all around” us. And finally, to the late Dr. Tommy Eads–one of my high school math teachers. He used to tell me that I vastly underappreciated my own higher-order math skills.

Twenty-plus years later, I now think Dr. Eads may have been right. I wish he were still around so that I could tell him.

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11 comments

  1. Pam, thank you for the acknowledgement, but I feel that you what you wrote is extraordinary. I love the way that you think, share, and integrate your knowledge. You really have a superpower in understanding yourself and others.

    • Oh, you are so kind. We’re all connected though, right? This stuff belongs to all of us, as I believe mindfulness is our birthright, our natural state.

      (I do worry about the length of the post and am thinking at some point I may make a short vlog about it, for people “on the go.)

  2. This is such a lovely tribute to your high school math teacher! I am sorry for your loss. One person really believing in us at a key age can make such a difference.

    • He was fabulous. You’d have loved him–animated, engaging, and a natural storyteller. Alas, he died suddenly–too young, too–when I was in my early 30s. Very sad.

  3. such great advice. many years ago i sat at the kitchen island with a little one who cried for 45 minutes over 15 minutes of math. we took breaks, unschooled math. no doubt, she has math anxiety. she sees and “gets” the math, can’t explain or write the steps she takes to solve problems. wish i had you back then, yet i’m so glad i have you now! sharing this post all over. thank you for bringing all this info together in such a great way.

  4. What’s missing from this post is a long-term plan. Simply restating the problem and the research does not help, and can be seriously misleading. Sorry, but meditation, mindfulness and Vi Hart videos do not “cut it” when it comes to math progress and math anxiety for many homeschooled kids and parents struggling with this problem. BTDT.

    To me, this reads like a retrospective piece from the parent of a child who ultimately “got it,” and the parent figures some of these steps along the way must have worked. That does not help a homeschooling parent still struggling with math anxiety or math underperformance, who is also facing standardized math testing or state laws requiring evidence of regular math instruction. Once a child falls behind, it is so difficult to catch up again, and by high school it is so important to be “caught up.” I am also reminded of my unschooling friends who live in more homeschool friendly states and can afford to just “drop” math from their curriculum. Not everyone can do that!

    I think Sian Bielock has cornered the research market on math anxiety, and those studies can help kids with a measured low working memory, but only with accommodations on standardized tests. These findings cannot help you help your child learn math. This article does not put that research into proper context, it only minimizes the struggle that is necessary to cope with this situation.

    I’m not talking here about diagnosed learning disabilities as such, like dysgraphia, I’m talking about gifted kids whose brains work differently when it comes to math. For these kids, the bottom line is that successfully learning math at grade level is critical for college admissions. It’s so important to just say that and act on it. All of this “go do something else for a while” is for parents of early elementary kids in the “romantic phase” of homeschooling. It does not help parents of older kids who still struggle with math anxiety. Kids grow up, and you need strategies for all ages, not just the pressure-free days. Nothing in this article addresses that. You dismiss worksheets and repetitive drills as unnecessary and unattractive to homeschoolers, but the truth is, those things can work. You are dismissing the unpopular things because you know how homeschoolers hate to force their kids to do anything. But that is not a service when it comes to math and math anxiety, it’s an anecdotal, superficial and impractical approach that glosses over the real solutions many homeschooling parents need to hear.

    One thing I’ve learned from this struggle is that some gifted kids (mine) need to learn more math, not less math. We have settled on a schedule that includes math at various levels, including above, below, and at grade level instruction and practice. The focus remains on grade level skills, but we use below grade level programs (and worksheets) to reinforce basic concepts. Above grade level workshops can help bright kids see what lies ahead in math, and how math can be used in “real life.” This tiered approach, using conceptual and practical math instruction at several levels simultaneously, is working for us. We are not setting math aside because math is difficult, that is a dangerous road to head down. On the contrary, we have had to ramp up our math learning simply because it it more difficult. We just had to diversify and accept that math learning can be hard.

    Sure, it’s much harder to tell homeschoolers that math anxiety or math asynchrony may require more instruction, not less instruction, but that’s what many homeschoolers need to hear. Unless you keep the endgame in mind at all times, you may end up regretting all that time you spent watching Vi Hart videos or meditating. Before you know it, you may have missed the chance to help your child really learn math, in which case that child’s math anxiety may become a much more serious burden with much more serious consequences.

    • Thank you so much for your comment.

      It’s great that you have a plan that works for you. Actually, it sounds a whole lot like the one that we use here at home NOW that we’ve moved through the phase described in this post: accepting that the “problem” isn’t the math–or doing too much or not enough–but rather the anxiety itself. We addressed it and then returned to a path that both adds complexity and reviews [earlier material].

      Also, I think we’re in agreement about the need for practice over time. As I said: “Sometimes math anxiety can be exacerbated by the lack of a firm mathematical foundation.” That’s what you’re arguing for, right? A firm mathematical foundation?

      I think most thinking, reasonable homeschool parents who share a desire for college admission and success *get* that math must be done routinely and progress made over a span of years.

      What has been missing from the discussion to date is how, in our quest for a far-off goal, we let too much pressure into our homeschool settings. It’s time to talk about it. In fact THIS post came out of a conversation with homeschool parents expressing a need for this sort of discussion.

      Also, as for my “dismissing” worksheets as “unnecessary,” note that I explicitly mention pairing workbooks with technology here at home. That section of the post is where I emphasize that parents need to find what techniques work for their *individual* children. At no point do I say “down with math workbooks.”

      Look, most homeschool parents value math education and understand that math requires regular practice. Even among unschoolers there is a near-universal recognition that among all the subject areas it is the one topic that will require some sort of scaffolding.

      Scaffolding is found in curriculum programs, and there are thousands of possible pairings. Frankly, that stuff is pretty obvious. However, trying to shoehorn a *math anxious* kid fails to work for many people. This post–and it is a blog post NOT an “article” by the way–offers another path that has resonated with many.

    • Also, with regard to whether or not Sian Bielock’s research is relevant to teaching math at home, I will reshare below this link (embedded above) to a 2014 “American Educator” article on alleviating math in a school setting.

      Note that it was written for the publication by Bielock and Daniel Willingham. Clearly they see their research as relevant to math education *beyond* the realm of tests. Moreover, the editors wrote of the Ask the Cognitive Scientist column series: “…we consider findings from this field that are strong and clear enough to merit classroom application.”

      If those strategies are relevant to easing math anxiety in the context of a classroom, then they merit consideration in the context of a home learning environment, too.

      See: http://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/beilock.pdf

  5. I just now need to re-apply this for teaching writing (I am uncomfortable and my daughter has developed anxiety). 😉
    Thanks for sharing so honestly

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