The Mathephant in the Room

By Rebecca Honig and Françoise Lartigue, Ready4K Content Leaders

As we get farther into a school year so disrupted by the pandemic, research is beginning to emerge on areas in which students seem to be experiencing the largest loss. Initial findings suggest that math may be at the top of the list.

Three studies based on NWEA data predicted students could learn up to a full year less math in 2020-21, compared to what they would learn in a typical year. 

As family engagement specialists, we look at ways that we can help to close those gaps through parent and caregiver involvement. To do that, though, we first need to address the elephant in the room:

Math-phobia.

Many parents and caregivers are scared of math. As a matter of fact, as many as 1 in 5 U.S. adults report severe math anxiety.

And we know that pandemic anxiety related to job loss, health and so many other daily uncertainties, can only make it harder to engage in a subject that triggers a stress response.  

Why is Math Stressful? 

When asked why they have math anxiety, adults have common concerns to share:

Many have negative memories of their own experiences in math. 

Some worry that math is a world of right and wrong

Others are concerned that math is taught differently now and they don’t want to confuse children by sharing math strategies that they remember from their own childhood. 

For many math feels like something better left untouched in the home

Many have been sold a big Math Myth — that some people are good at math… and some aren’t. 

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Rebecca’s Story: Meet My Mathephant

I have to admit that for a long time I was one of these people.

I received that message when, in third grade, I was held in at recess because I had gotten too many answers wrong on a math test.

I received that message when I was told over and over again by teachers that “math isn’t your strength, but you’re really good at English.” I received that message when, in high school they added an extra math class for all of us kids who were not ready to “move on to more complex math.”  

It didn’t take long for me to lean into that identity.

“Can someone else calculate the tip? I’m terrible at math.” 

“I need to triple this recipe? Never mind, I’ll just cook something else so I don’t have to make any calculations. Calculations are not my thing.” 

“Accounting? Engineering? Mechanics? Architecture? Medicine? Construction? Not for me… too much math!”

Parenting with Math Anxiety

I’ve kept my deep math insecurity from my children, but when the pandemic hit and our home was transformed into virtual learning central… It triggered ALL my fears and insecurities. If I’m being totally honest, I panicked.  

 I made a plea to my husband, “Never go anywhere from 1-2.”

That is when our eldest daughter had MATH.

Even listening at her door made me tense up. Everytime she called out to us with a question, I raced to interrupt my husband… “Josh, quick, it’s MATH. Sadie needs help. I’m going to go hide in the closet. Tell me when it’s over.” 

Then, one day it happened. Someone called my husband into an urgent meeting and it just happened to be from 1-2.

Many have been sold a big Math Myth — that some people are good at math… and some aren’t. 

Rebecca Honig, Ready4K Director of Content

AND at 1:10… I heard my daughter’s voice bellowing from her room.

“Mom… can you come help me with math?”

Facing Down My Math Fears
Photo by Matthew Nelson

When I entered her room (after giving myself a small pep talk in the mirror) I was confronted with my worst MATH NIGHTMARE.

I had no idea what she was working on. On her screen were symbols I’d never seen before and so many numbers and off to the side were shapes and arrows and well… who could say what else because my mind went completely blank as I entered “fight or flight” mode.

When I came to my senses I knew there was only one path forward. “Sadie,” I said.  “Let’s see if you can talk me through the exact question you have. If you can pinpoint the part you don’t quite understand, you can ask your teacher.” 

And so she talked through it. I asked guiding questions, “Hmmm… where’s the first place you felt stuck? What’s a question you  might ask to help you get unstuck?” or “Hmm… is there another way you might go about solving this? Have you solved this type of question before? What steps did you use to solve it?”

After a few minutes, Sadie was satisfied. “Okay mom. I think that’s enough. I can take it from here.”

As I walked back to my room, it felt like a victory lap. Why had I been so stressed about math? And how had I forgotten my own philosophy: to help a child thrive in math you don’t need to have good answers. You need to have good questions

An Opportunity for Engagement

Math is not, in fact, a universe of right and wrong. It’s a universe of wondering, of noticing, of trying one path and then another. It’s a universe where “mistakes” are opportunities. 

One of the greatest mathematicians of her generation, Maryam Mirzakhani, described her process as “being lost in a jungle and trying to use all the knowledge that you can gather to come up with some new tricks, and with some luck, you might find a way out.”

Her daughter described Maryam, the first female winner of the Fields Medal, as a mathematical painter. As someone who doodled her way forward.

Consider the possibility of framing math as a process of discovery and exploration, a creative expression of ideas. Like how we teach art and music. There are techniques, but we know the growing (and the fun) is in playing with the material. We can give ALL families an empowering entry point for supporting math at home!

Our brain is a muscle—when we make math mistakes it sparks our brain to get stronger and smarter.

Françoise Lartigue, Ready4K Content Manager

This entry point starts with helping parents and educators have a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset. When we believe that a mathematical mindset is something that can be developed in children and not something that a child has (or doesn’t have), the door is left wide open for children to enjoy math.

Françoise’s Suggestions: Building Math-Positive Relationships

Educators are well positioned to help families transform their relationship with math. Here are some key things you might communicate with the families you serve.

It matters HOW we talk about math at home

When the adults in a room have a negative attitude about math, kids can absorb those beliefs and attitudes. Here are some great phrases that can help build a positive Math-ittude at home:

When you think this…..Try this saying this instead….
Math is hard!Wow, math makes my brain work in different ways!
I am NOT a math person!We can all learn math! My math mind is growing all the time.
I can’t do this!What do we know about this math question?
Let’s describe the problem together.
I’ll never get this rightIt sounds like this path isn’t getting us there.
Let’s try something different.
First, let’s take a 5-min wiggle break!

A math teacher I know said that when his high school students would say “I’m stuck!” he’d say “wiggle around and see if you can get unstuck.” Then he’d make them get out of their seat and walk around the room. Just stepping away for a moment and moving their bodies helped them get unstuck.

“Try to notice and share Math Moments in your daily routine”

Even though many of us think we are not good at math, the truth is we do math every day!  Stopping to notice these math moments can boost the confidence parents need to support their children in math.

Daily tasks like sorting laundry, measuring ingredients, making change, packing groceries or managing a schedule all involve math.  

Talking about Math Moments helps make math real”

When we share with our children how we are using math in our daily lives, it builds their positive feelings about math. This is especially true for young children. Math becomes something everyone does. For example, as you measure the laundry detergent, try saying “I am measuring the detergent so I know I am using the right amount.” 

Adding Math Moments is a great way to build math muscles”

Looking for opportunities to add math moments to the day can boost the way kids feel and think about math.  Now, even at an early age, math becomes something the child does too!

Simple activities like counting steps to get somewhere, noticing patterns on clothing, comparing the weight of two items, and noticing the shape of things you see are all great ways to add math moments to the day. 

Mistakes are great for building math minds!”

I am going to share something about math and mistakes that blew my mind.  In Jo Boaler’s book Mathematical Mindsets she notes that “Mistakes cause your brain to spark and grow.”  So, mistakes literally make us smarter! 

Emphasizing this to children as they learn math can shift their focus away from trying to get the “right” answer, towards the process of solving problems.  When this happens we are hitting math anxiety at the root cause: fear of failure, and defining failure as “getting the answer wrong”.

My 10-year-old son has been having BIG emotions when he makes math mistakes. So I shared this thought with him, “Our brain is a muscle, when we make math mistakes it sparks our brain to get stronger and smarter.”

Just knowing that mistakes help him build his math muscles significantly diminished his emotional reactions to making math mistakes.  Now, when he realizes he made a mistake he’ll say calmly, “looks like my brain just got stronger” and work to fix it.

“Ask, ask, ask away!

Engaging with kids through questions helps build their own learning and understanding of math concepts and emphasize math’s importance. They’ll feel supported and their learning will be boosted too. Here are some great examples of questions to try out with your child:

  • How did you figure that out?
  • What did you do first? Next?
  • Can you walk me through each step?
  • Can you draw me a picture so I can see what you’re thinking?
  • Is there another way you want to try to solve this?

It’s our hope that if you are one of the millions of adults with math anxiety, these tips have helped you to realize that everyone can build a positive math mindset.

Next week, we’ll be offering ideas for games, activities, and resources to support math learning at home. So stay tuned!


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