Math anxiety: how parents and students can fix this


How Do You Know When You Need Help in Math?

It’s normal to find math difficult since everyone tends to hit a roadblock every now and then. But it’s another thing if you find math hard all the time, which can be bad for both your grades and your self-confidence. Why is math hard for you? It could be for a variety of reasons, but know that it doesn’t define you. Not everyone is super smart, but it helps to get even a bit good in math to at least get passing marks. If it’s not getting any easier, then it’s time to ask for help with your math.


If you’re not sure if you do need help with math, then here are a few things to look out for. If you find yourself staying up all the time to finish your math homework, not liking math class at all, can’t really understand what your teacher is saying during a lesson, and not feeling like you want to do good, then you do need help. Saying that you have a problem is the first thing you need to do when you think you’re bad at math.


You need to help yourself first so you can be helped at all. If you’ve got a tutor to help you, then you should pay close attention so that you can actually start getting better. If you’ve signed up for an online learning platform with video lessons, then you have to actually watch those lessons like you should. When you’re being helped, make good use of that opportunity.


Maybe you’re a good student who came across a problem that’s hard to solve. You should be able to say that you need help when the time arises. Even students who are usually really in school runs into problems sometimes, and those who want to keep improving ask for help all the time. If you want to get better in math or even in anything else in life, then you should not be ashamed of asking for help.


Other than that, you will need to continue actually paying attention in class and practicing what you’ve learned by solving different kinds of problems. Having an equation memorized doesn’t mean you’ll be able to use it in an actual problem. You can get better with your math only by practicing consistently and as much as possible.


When you’re really stumped, you can try registering at StudyPug to get the best math video help on the Internet. Ask your parents if they can help support you with this. With well-organized lessons video lessons taught by math experts and 24/7 unlimited access, StudyPug can be your personal math tutor for best results. You can also try out our 7-days free trial to see if it’s right for you!

How to Help Your Children in Math?

Are you a parent whose child is having difficulty with math? Finding math a challenge is a fairly common problem. Some people seem to have a natural talent for numbers but others struggle. Luckily, good teaching and tutoring assistance can help children who find math difficult. It can help them overcome their frustrations and anxiety and gain an understanding of the concepts and skills necessary to function in a society where numerical literacy is an important skill for everyday life. Math help for kids is more accessible than you may have originally thought.

Research on the Benefits of Math Tutoring

A study published in 2014 by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that intensive tutoring is one way to bring youth up to speed on the mathematical knowledge they need. The study was conducted in Chicago among impoverished African-American Grade 9 and 10 students who had weak math skills and poor attendance records; about 25 percent of them also had a learning disability. One group of students were randomly assigned to receive intense tutoring and behavioral counselling; this group was compared to a control group that didn’t have these options.


The researchers found that in eight months, based on standardized test scores, the students who received the assistance learned what the average high school student learns in three years, over and above the results of the control group.


Professor Jens Ludwig, director of the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Lab, who led the study, said that it contradicts the common assumption that if disadvantaged students aren’t helped with math by the age of six, it’s too late. One hour of daily tutoring made a huge difference to these teens.


Tutoring is also a promising solution for families because parents aren’t always equipped to assist their children with math homework and issues. Professional tutors who are able to teach math to kids can make a big difference. A 2009 study conducted for Intel by Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates indicated that parents would rather talk to their children about sex and drugs than about science and math, and more than half of the 560 surveyed said they had trouble helping their children with these subjects.

Help Your Children be Successful in Math

Writing for the New York Times’ parenting blog, education author Elizabeth Green offers some suggestions to parents who want to work with their children on improving their math skills and success:

  1. Identify the problem: If you don’t get to the heart of the problem, you won’t be able to solve it. Really listen to your child as he/she explains his or her thinking in solving a math problem. You’ll be able not only to explain the right steps but show your child why the wrong ones don’t work.
  2. Demonstrate how math fits into everyday life: It’s valuable to your children to understand that math is connected to and useful in their daily lives. Calculate the tip at a restaurant out loud, or talk about how much change you’ll get from the cashier at the grocery store if you give him a 20-dollar bill for the $14.23 cost of your purchase. Take every opportunity to connect math with daily living and see if there are kids math problems that can be applied in the real world.
  3. See spots: Use dots to help children understand basic arithmetic concepts. The visual connection between adding three dots to two dots is useful to understanding. Dots can also be arranged in arrays so the child can visually begin to understand multiplication. Three rows of four dots equal twelve; if you add another dot to each row, what does that equal?
  4. Both memorization and understanding are helpful: Teaching both memorization and understanding together helps deepen understanding. Help your children memorize the multiplication tables while explaining the concepts behind them so it doesn’t seem like a useless, silly exercise.
  5. Introduce big ideas early: There are simple ways to demonstrate basic algebraic concepts such as variables while teaching arithmetic. For example, you ask your child, “Five plus what equals seven?” and write it out, too. The what/blank is equivalent to x in higher mathematics. Why not give your children a head start in a simple way?

Test Anxiety and Math

What about the dreaded test, you may ask. Good question. Test anxiety is common among students, and math tests can be very stressful for those who aren’t comfortable with math. Here are some tips to help students get through testing time:

  • Test yourself: Don’t simply re-read your notes or the test. Create questions or flashcards that force you to retrieve information. Retrieval boosts learning and retention and should improve performance.
  • Don’t cram: Research shows that reviewing information over time lets the brain forget and re-learn the key information and this leads to success.
  • Vary routine: Don’t follow the same study pattern each time. Mix up the problems you’re practicing and do them in a different order each day. It forces you to think about the kinds of problem you’re facing, rather than doing them by rote.
  • Calm the anxiety: A yoga breathing routine or spending 10 minutes prior to the test writing about anything that comes to mind have been shown to have calming effects.


Problems in learning math can be overcome with the right help, so don’t panic. As Franklin D. Roosevelt, the former U.S. president, famously said, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Math Anxiety and the Role of Parents

Parents are generally the most important influence in shaping their children’s characters, so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that they also affect their offsprings’ attitudes toward mathematics.

Researchers at the University of Chicago previously showed that students can learn math anxiety from math-anxious teachers, but their newest study demonstrates that mom and dad – or the child’s main caregivers – also have an impact.

Anxious Math Parents

Students whose parents were anxious about math learned less math than their peers during the school year, their study found. They were also more likely to have math anxiety themselves, but only if their parents helped them do their math homework.

“Notably, when parents reported helping with math homework less often, children’s math achievement and attitudes were not related to parents’ math anxiety,” the 2015 study’s lead author, Erin Maloney, and her co-authors wrote in their paper.

“We often don’t think about how important parents’ own attitudes are in determining their children’s academic achievement,” Professor Sian Beilock, a psychologist and another of the study’s authors, told the University of Chicago news service. “But our work suggests that if a parent is walking around saying ‘Oh, I don’t like math’ or ‘This stuff makes me nervous,’ kids pick up on this messaging and it affects their success.”

What the Research on Math Anxiety Tells Us

The research team focused their study on Grade 1 and 2 students. They then asked parents or main caregivers for 438 students to fill in a questionnaire at the start of the school year and again at the end. The survey posed various questions about their anxiety regarding math and ascertained how often parents assisted their children with homework.


The students were also assessed at the beginning and end of the year for math anxiety, as well as for math achievement and – as a control – reading achievement. Reading prowess was not affected by math anxiety.


This study built on an earlier study conducted by Beilock and U of Chicago colleagues. Their 2012 research showed that children express anxiety about doing math as early as Grade 1 by disrupting their working memory. If not addressed, it’s an issue that can follow them throughout their lives.


Interestingly, math anxiety often harms the highest achieving students who have the most potential to succeed in mathematics. It may put them as much as half a year behind their less anxious counterparts. Children are very perceptive and may even pick up on anxiety about simple processes like addition and subtraction.


“Early math anxiety may lead to a snowball effect that exerts an increasing cost on math achievement by changing students’ attitudes and motivational approaches towards math, increasing math avoidance, and ultimately reducing math competence,” Beilock wrote in the study.

The Impact of New Ways of Learning

Harris Cooper, a Duke University professor who has studied homework, told the New York Times that parental math anxiety increases whenever schools introduce new ways of learning math.


“Educators can’t take math, turn it into Greek, and say, ‘Mom, Dad, will you help your kid with this,’ and not expect to get a ‘wha?’ ” he said.


The researchers indicate that the situation isn’t hopeless. Parents can improve their own comfort with math or learn to conceal their anxiety. They need to prepare, however, before working with their children.

How Parents Can Help

“We can’t just tell parents—especially those who are anxious about math—‘Get involved,’” Maloney told the university news service. “We need to develop better tools to teach parents how to most effectively help their children with math.”


The available tools include math books, computer and traditional board games, or Internet apps. How to teach kids math isn’t immediately clear to the everyday parent, but there are lots of resources to help. Parents can also enlist online math tutoring to assist their children. Highlighting their own use of math in daily life is another good tactic: count your change out loud or compare prices in a grocery store.


Parents also shouldn’t worry if they can’t figure out their child’s math problems. There’s nothing wrong with suggesting that the child get extra help from the teacher.

What About Math Tests

When it’s test time, Beilock suggests that students can help corral their anxiety using a technique called expressive writing. By writing about their math anxieties for about 10 minutes prior to a test, students can help to minimize their impact on working memory, reduce their anxiety and perhaps realize that their worries aren’t as important as they originally believed. Younger students can be encouraged to draw pictures as an alternative.


Even something as simple as taking deep breaths before diving into the test can be beneficial. When students actually focused on the task at hand, rather than thinking about it, their brains were able to do their job.

Tutoring Relieves Math Anxiety

“I don’t like spiders and snakes,” say the words of an old country music song, but they might as well say, “I don’t like spiders and snakes and math.” Researchers at Stanford University in California have determined that youngsters with math anxiety show the same neurological reactions to math as people with phobias about spiders and snakes exhibit when they come into contact with these creepy crawlers. The fear of math is very real phobia.

Luckily, these same researchers have determined that, like these phobias, math anxiety can be successfully treated with a therapy called exposure therapy. It exposes the sufferers repeatedly to the thing they fear in a safe environment. In the case of students with math anxiety, the therapy takes the form of one-on-one tutoring that employs a positive approach.

What is math anxiety?

The research team, led by Vinod Menon, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, sought to identify a biological basis for math anxiety. Using magnetic resonance imaging, they determined that when children were asked to perform basic calculations, the brain showed increased activity in the amygdala, its major fear centre, and the hippocampus, the structure that aids in the formation of new memories. The heightened activity in the amygdala interfered with the function of the brain regions involved in numerical processing.


“It’s remarkable that, although the phenomena was first identified over 50 years back, nobody had bothered to ask how math anxiety manifests itself in terms of neural activity,” Menon told the Stanford University news service. “Our findings validate math anxiety as a genuine type of stimulus- and situation-specific anxiety.”


It is possible to be good at math and still be scared of math, but over time, those who are anxious shy away from pursuing advanced mathematics, thus limiting career options. Until recently, little effort had been placed on addressing math phobia.


“Math anxiety has been under the radar,” said Kaustubh Supekar, PhD, the lead author of the study, told Science Daily. “People think it will just go away, but for many children and adults, it doesn’t.”

Overcoming math anxiety

Lessening maths fear is possible, however, with the help of one-on-one cognitive tutoring, the research indicated.


In their 2015 study, the Stanford team looked at 46 Grade 3 students, a critical age for acquiring basic mathematics skills. They gave each child a test to determine his/her level of math anxiety and separated them into two groups: high anxiety and lower anxiety. They also gave them neuropsychological assessments and required them to complete addition or subtraction problems while undergoing a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.

Next, the children were provided with 22 sessions of one-to-one tutoring that focused on addition and subtraction. All of them showed improvement in addition and subtraction at the end of the tutoring program. The youngsters with high math anxiety had reduced anxiety afterward, while the others didn’t show any difference. A follow-up MRI scan while adding or subtracting indicated that the students who previously had a phobia of math no longer displayed activity in their amygdalas, meaning that the tutoring had relieved their anxiety, rather than finding a workaround.


“It’s reassuring that we could help these children reduce anxiety by mere exposure to [math] problems,” Supekar told the Stanford news service.


The tutoring was highly personalized, Menon told National Public Radio. If a child got stuck on a particular concept, the tutor would work with the student to “get beyond the bottleneck in a non-negative, encouraging way.” It slowly started to tackle their mathphobia.


The scientists believe that more research is required to determine whether the one-on-one sessions were effective in reducing the typical anxiety partly because the students had no fear of having to perform in front of classmates or others.

Tips for Tutors and Students

Boise State University in Idaho offers a number of useful suggestions for both math tutors and students with math anxiety.


  1. Guide the student through the process of doing a math problem by asking leading questions. Avoid doing the problem for the student.
  2. Teach concepts, rather than just process to help the student become an independent learner. Students need to understand why something is important, rather than just following steps.
  3. Encourage class attendance. Tutoring is a wonderful aid, but it is not a substitute for teaching.
  4. Work in conjunction with the teacher. Don’t confuse the student by using different methods for solving problems than the teacher uses in class. Make sure you are on the “same page.”


  1. Don’t use self-defeating talk. Give yourself a break! Use positive self-talk when reviewing your math abilities.
  2. Don’t consider your questions dumb. There is no shame in not understanding something and there is no such thing as a bad question.
  3. Don’t run away from your frustrations. Keep a journal of your math successes, your strengths, your frustrations and areas for further study.


There are ways to help out math anxiety online too. StudyPug is one of these options, providing 24/7 accessible math help to students through online videos and courses. Not sure if it’s right for your child? Let them try it out for 7-days—it’s on the house!


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