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The Mathematically Anxious Mind

Growing up, I loved math. Mostly. Or maybe I was just good at it. Mostly. In middle school I jumped into some fancy-schmancy, lock-step advanced section where we leapt through three or four years of math in two years’ time. No problem.

But by the end of my junior year in high school, I was rather lost. I’d already dropped down from advanced, and having set my sights on becoming an illustrator or lawyer, had decided this math stuff was silly anyway. Still, getting a decent grade in my pre-calculus class was imperative none-the-less.

As luck would have it, the afternoon before our last big test (and several miles from my school), my math teacher ran a stop-sign and rear-ended me. As a result, I got an undeserved “A” on the test and a very generous “B” for the class. I didn’t push my luck and opted not to take calculus the next year. I later went to art school; no math classes required there. Thus my illustrative math career effectively ended with 11th grade. Phew.

So here I am, watching my second grader suffer from anxiety I never experienced, even in my worst days of trig and pre-cal. For months I’ve scratched my head and thought, how can the need to borrow a 10 cause her to FREAK OUT so much?

Her school has a guideline of 15 minutes, for ALL subjects COMBINED, as the amount of time that second graders are supposed to spend on their homework each night. She spends that time alone just COMPLAINING about her math.

The weird thing is, she knows her facts. She gets the concepts. She just has this “mental block” that rears its head as soon as she hears the word “math,” much less sees a worksheet. And because math was “my thing” (till it wasn’t), I just didn’t understand. Till I heard about a new study out of Stanford University looking at the math anxieties of second and third graders.

Researchers found that the same part of the brain that responds to fearful situations—like seeing a spider or snake—shows the same heightened response when children with a high math anxiety are confronted with math. Simple math. And as they freak out, their ability to do what is simple becomes harder.

It turns out, even students who are good at the subject can have extreme math anxiety. It’s more of a phobia.

It’s been an eye-opener. I’m still not sure what I’ll do with the information; at least I know why she gets so frustrated and puts up walls, despite “getting” it.

For now, when my daughter gets anxious with her math homework, I’ll just continue with my strategy of helping her calm her nerves while keeping her focused:

Take deep breaths.

Count to 10.

Or 5.

Or not count at all. No pressure, kiddo.

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About The Parenting Gig

For nearly two decades, Leslie has worked as a communications specialist. Since 2006, she has served as the editor of a regional parenting publication, for which she received the Parenting Media Association's Gold and Silver Awards for Overall Writing in 2010, 2011 and 2013. Follow her blog at

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