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Math Anxiety: Are You Passing Yours On To Your Child?

by Donna Verry Dee

Karen Greenburg of Mesa Arizona hated math as a child and she sees history repeating itself with her daughter, Angela. “She’s very frustrated with math,” says Greenburg of the second-grader. “She mostly dislikes doing drills and timed tests. I think I may have passed that on to her through my poor attitude about it. I have been known to say, ‘I don’t understand why they have to memorize math facts and take timed tests.’ I think she has picked up on that and uses it to her advantage.”

Beverly L. Stewart, educational consultant and owner of Back to Basics Learning Dynamics in Wilmington DE, agrees that a parent’s own negative attitude toward math can hamper a child’s progress. “Parents with math phobias absolutely pass on those feelings and thoughts to their children. It is such a shame and often the parent does not realize they are doing it.”

When Greenburg started hearing her own negative words coming out of her daughter’s mouth, she began exploring alternative ways to engage her daughter in math. Educational computer games and taking turns quizzing each other on the times tables are now popular pastimes at home. Through her college courses as an elementary education major, Greenburg has become aware of a growing array of math-based children’s literature which she plans to incorporate into their reading repertoire.

Like Karen, many parents left math class with a sour taste in their mouth. According to Marilyn Burns, math education guru and author of Math: Facing an American Phobia , nearly two thirds of American adults fear and loathe math. So, what steps can math-challenged parents take to overcome their own anxiety and help their children become confident and successful math students?

Play Math.

Temporarily step away from the text books and worksheets that might have negative associations for you and your child. Get out some blocks, dominoes, a deck of cards or a pair of dice to practice math facts instead.

Teresa Smolinski, a technical artist who specializes in art for math text books, and her husband, an illustrator and photographer who struggled with math, were determined that their two daughters would be strong math students. When the girls were little, mealtime included counting food and making math equations out of Cheerios. On the road, they’d have the girls looking for and counting red cars or yellow signs. They’d send them on number-themed scavenger hunts. “We’d give them a list and a bag and they’d have to go out and find 3 yellow flowers, 2 small rocks, 5 leaves, etc.”

When one of the girls had trouble memorizing the times tables, Teresa would choose a problem and playfully post it all over the house on sticky notes – on the ceiling over her bed, on the bathroom mirror, everywhere she looked. “I’d just do one problem at a time so she could master it without feeling overwhelmed,” says Smolinski. Now, as teenagers, the girls are successful math students and have even started their own business.

Watch Your Words

As Karen Greenburg learned from her daughter, children can pick up on a parent’s negative attitude and use it to justify and reinforce their own struggles.

Kelly Stettner and her husband John, of Springfield Vermont, are homeschooling their 10 year old daughter. Since Kelly was never successful at math, John has taken the lead in teaching this subject. Kelly is careful not to let her daughter pick up on her math anxiety. “I tell her how awesome it is that she’s doing this stuff, and not how I hated math or was lousy at it. I tell her I didn’t have the terrific teacher that she has — so I didn’t learn the things she is learning.”

Emphasize Math in Daily Life

Whether you like it or not, you still use math every day. As you plan meals, pay cashiers, figure tips or keep score during games, stress to your children that math skills are a practical necessity that help us get through the day, not a bothersome class designed to torture them.

When choosing math classes in high school, consider ones that deal with everyday math situations. Librarian Paula Laurita has traveled the United States giving lectures on literature, library programs, technology and the Holocaust. She and her two sons have all endured serious struggles with math. But keeping it related to real life has helped them. When the boys reached high school, Laurita had them take consumer math instead of pre-calculus. “It was more important for them to learn how to balance a checkbook and evaluate interest rates on loans.”

Get Curious

If math is a mystery to you, try to solve it. Approach math problems like a hunt for hidden treasure.

Inspired by her daughter’s success, Kelly Stettner decided to teach herself some basic statistics. “If she can do this sort of math, I just needed to adopt her fun attitude and learn to ‘speak’ math,” says Stettner. It worked a bit. At least I got over my self-imposed rule that I’m lousy at math.”

Ellen Levinas, a Certified Master Virtual Assistant and owner of The Sample Bag website, also faced her math fears. “As I got older and went back to school to finish my degree in business, I had to take math again. I still hated it. But as an adult, I managed to understand why I hated it so much when I was in elementary school and high school. Patience is the number one factor in trying to understand any math problem, and as a child, like most children, patience isn’t something that I had. The second time around, as an adult taking math, I understood that one must completely understand why a formula will work out or why not. This enabled me to talk to my children about patience in doing math problems with a deeper understanding.”

Outsource It

If you truly are unable to help your child with math homework, find someone who can. Hire a tutor, enlist an older sibling or arrange to barter homework help with a friend in exchange for something you feel more comfortable doing.

Angela Norton Tyler, a.k.a. “The Homework Lady” is a parent, teacher, author and owner of the website Family Homework Answers. She says that an afterschool tutoring class helped her daughter conquer math anxiety in sixth grade. After the first day, her anxiety began to subside as she realized that many of her classmates were having similar problems understanding the concepts.

“Especially in middle school, so many students are trying to be cool, and they don’t speak up and ask questions,” Tyler explains. “So, it seems like everybody else ‘gets it’ when they don’t.”

“I think that tutoring programs can be amazingly helpful because sometimes students just need to hear a concept again, and then they get it. For example, my daughter would leave math class and swear she didn’t understand the day’s lesson, go to that tutoring class and then understand it.”

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