Today I write from two perspectives, well maybe three. I write as a teacher who has helped many students fill gaps in their learning of mathematics, as a parent who has watched her own children struggle, and now as a home educator using all I know to help fill gaps for my children. The struggle is real. As a public school educator responsible for teaching state standards, I realize how quickly the pace truly is in many of our schools. Teachers are slammed with data comparing their students with others and many times are made to feel like losers themselves. While there have to be math teachers out there rocking it, there are also math teachers struggling. We may find ourselves in both categories. But without a doubt, every year I taught fifth grade, my classroom was filled with more students lacking foundational math skills than not, and we can’t hope for growth unless we slow it down and address it.
Truthfully, I had my own personal struggles learning math as a child. My pace of learning math was much slower than my peers. There were teachers who were willing to help me in my primary grades which is why I never quit, but I missed out on recess for scoring low and was the victim of a teacher trying to reteach subtraction the same way over and over even though the method made zero sense to my six year old brain. But in high school, when the instruction felt completely foreign, I’d quit trying to learn and my anxious thoughts took over. My self talk was very negative and if it wasn’t for peers who understood, I wouldn’t have continued to try.
Ultimately, I did not want to be a math failure. I truly wanted to understand and succeed academically. One thing I started to do for myself was to continue taking notes and put question marks even when instruction ceased making sense. So when my friend would reteach a lesson to me after school, we would go back to those specific questions that were marked. This saved me! I stopped shutting down during instruction, took responsibility for my learning, and learned how to ask specific questions to find connections that were missing in my mind. These are ideas I’ve always tried to teach my students, too.
Teaching fifth grade math for years, most of my students came to me lacking foundational skills. However, learning to see natural signs of avoidance and discomfort was second nature. Math anxiety is real. Seeing students shut down immediately while transitioning to math was something I always looked for and talked about. Over the years, students told me my math instruction was the first time they understood place value or multiplication or long division. But I can honestly tell you that to get those students to that point, there were bouts of panic, tears, and anxiety to overcome.
Now I’m seeing it first hand with my children as they learn math, too. But my oldest child, now in fifth grade, is why I want to address this today. She has always been a strong student but started exhibiting behaviors of avoidance last year in the fourth grade. Her behaviors stemmed from not understanding and often led to her being in trouble. At the time, I thought she was being rebellious, but now as we re-enter into those math skills, her anxiety rears itself in the form of angry outbursts, tears, and stomach pain. To counteract this, I reassure her it’s okay if she uses her fingers (I’m 38 and still do sometimes), I remind her it’s okay to make mistakes, and more than anything, there is no hurry. She is safe with me. She doesn’t have to worry about not knowing the answers all the time, making mistakes is a natural way of learning, and I’m right next to her to help when she is facing confusion and self-doubt.
My teaching career has shown me that the longer our students face an inability to form necessary connections in their math foundation, the more anxious they feel and will be less likely to ask questions. Their behavior can become erratic and they will do anything they can to avoid math. If not addressed by us as their teachers, the less likely we will help them grow in their gaps while they are our students.
When we see struggling students, there are things we can do immediately to help lessen our students’ anxiety:
Teach them how to breathe through their anxiety and let them close their books or notebooks.
Go over examples explicitly and don’t rely on things they “should already know.” Show them how to write this in their notes, too.
Let them use their fingers! Eventually they will pick up patterns and not need to (or maybe they always will) but if they need their fingers, let them use them! What is the big deal about using fingers, anyway?
Remind them that making mistakes is okay. The process is more important.
Rely on small group instruction and even individual instruction when necessary.
Review, review, review before going on!
Model making connections during instruction.
Use real talk with your students. Acknowledging that I struggled and found a way through it has helped many of my students throughout the years.
Today, I helped my own child in place value and using algebraic skills. I talked her down from the ledge of anxiety and frustration. Because she didn’t quit, she gained in grit. I stayed close by at first and then walked away so she could do more on her own and learn a process after showing her some examples. It was amazing to watch as she pulled out her math notebook (that she started on her own) and begin writing down what she knew she would forget. I helped her mark some areas with more explicit examples so she could return later and truly understand.
The process started out a little painful. She lashed out more because she’s in the comfort of her own home. Admittedly, I used a few choice words before reigning in and realizing she was acting out from anxiety. Math instruction can look messy and we talked about that. She was able to voice her frustrations from previous years and her mom teacher just listened without judgement. We won today and developed more perseverance. That’s a win for #MathMonday!
What do you do to help your students or children gain in math through their anxiety? Let’s continue the discussion!
Here is a little story my daughter and I put together using the Book Creator App! Enjoy!