Combatting Math Anxiety in Elementary Education

Submitted by: By Haley Osbourne, MEd & Leah Holliday, Brent International School Manila
Appeared on the ET Journal Spring Issue 2024


Imagine a regular math class in the 1990s in a public school class- room in a Canadian town. I, Haley Osbourne, an excited fourth grader, was in a math class in the early afternoon, completing a daily timed Multiplication drill. The room of young students and the teach- er was silent. My classmates around me feverishly pencilled in newly learned multiplication sentences. We had been learning multiplica- tion by memorizing multiplication tables, and I was a very eager stu- dent, memorizing and repeating facts alongside my peers. However, something happened that day. I went to complete my 7 and 8-factor columns, and I completely froze. At that moment, I could not recall any of the multiplication facts in the columns, and I felt myself tense up as I tried desperately to remember what I had just been taught a few days prior. Feeling paralyzed and ashamed, I turned in a nearly empty page to my teacher, a first in my career as an elementary stu- dent. When I confided in others, both adults and peers, the universal responses fell along the lines of “Some people just aren’t good at math.” and “Maybe you’re not that good at math, but you’re such a great reader!” This was a pivotal moment in my learning life. Math was no longer fun and interesting, something I could explore and practice. Math was frustrating. Math was scary. Math was something I just wasn’t good at.

What is Math Anxiety?
Stories like this are not uncommon. Every teacher has likely seen a student put their heads in their hands and exclaim “I’m just not a math person!” One may ask, why do the other subjects in school not seem to garner the same response? We are unlikely to hear a student, when faced with difficulties in Social Studies, declare “I just don’t have a Humanities brain!” Yet, it is not uncommon to hear even our youngest learners suggest that math causes them stress. Math anxiety can be described as fear or nervousness that gets in the way of success in mathematics (Ashcroft, 2002). This anxiety can lead to avoidance, not only in the classroom setting but worryingly can dissuade students from pursuing careers in mathematics and STEM (Boaler, n.d). Further, math anxiety is so common that 93% of Americans have reported feeling nervous when doing math (Blazrer, 2011). So then, what causes this anxiety in students?

Causes of Math Anxiety
Several factors can be pointed to when exploring why some stu- dents develop anxiety around math. One area that contributes to this fear is how we assess math. As teachers navigate standards that use language around automaticity and fluency, it is important to en- sure that students are developing conceptual understanding around these facts, not simply memorization (Boaler, 2015). This becomes particularly true as we assess students on their understanding of math facts. Often, students are given timed tests and this can be the beginning of anxiety in math (Boaler, 2014). Timed tests are not a clear marker of mathematical understanding. Math facts, such as multiplication facts, are stored in the brain’s working memory. How- ever, when feeling stressed or under pressure, the information in the working memory is more difficult to access (Boaler, 2015). Students who feel anxious may not have full access to the knowledge they have when given a timed test, thus creating the narrative that they may be “bad at math” or that some people are “math people” while others are not. This can also create a belief that to be proficient at math, one must be able to do math quickly (Boaler, Course). These encounters contribute to a negative outlook on math as a subject and also to anxiety around math ability (National Numeracy, 2023).

Adults also play a role in developing math anxiety in children. If a parent or guardian discusses math negatively around their child, this can contribute to a fear of the subject (Schaeffer et al.). Making com- ments like “I am not a math person” around children impacts their own identity around the learning process. Additionally, many families are comfortable reading to their children from an early age, thus creating positive feelings toward literacy. However, it is less likely that families give the same energy to math, particularly before formal schooling, so young students potentially have less access and experi- ence with mathematics (Ehmke, 2023). Fortunately, several things can be built into the classroom experience that help to mitigate these fears and support mathematical learning and curiosity.

Classroom Tools
A variety of tools can be used inside the classroom to empower stu- dents on their journey to becoming confident and inquisitive math- ematicians. Math is a language. In math class, all students are language learners (Burns, 2007). When students have access to math vocabu- lary, they can build conceptual understanding (McConell 2008) and become better problem solvers. The use of math word walls serves as a visual reminder of rich mathematical language students can use to describe their thinking and justify their reasoning. Educators may use a whole class math word wall, individual math word walls for students to keep as a tool in a math journal, or even a collaborative math word wall created by the students themselves.

The work surface on which students share their thinking process after being given a task impacts student engagement and learning. Liljedahl (2020) studied the length of time students spent on a math task across a variety of surfaces, including both horizontal and ver- tical spaces. Students were engaged for the least amount of time when using paper notebooks to solve math problems. However, stu- dents were highly engaged when problems were solved on vertical whiteboards or vertical non-permanent surfaces. By utilizing vertical, non-permanent surfaces, a collaborative culture of thinking, not just answers, is developed (Liljedahl, 2020). By using a non-permanent surface, students are given a low-risk environment to test out differ- ent mathematical ideas. Additionally, by celebrating the process, not just highlighting the result, students are encouraged to share their ideas and knowledge with their peers as well as the teacher.

The use of physical manipulatives in mathematics provides students with a visual and tactile representation of mathematical concepts. When students are given manipulatives to demonstrate their think- ing, they are encouraged to demonstrate the why and not just the response to a given question (Heddens 1997). Manipulatives allow students to construct their cognitive representations and allow them to express their thinking with teachers and peers. (Sowell, 1989; Ruzic & O’Connell, 2001). We, the authors, believe students of all ages should have access to manipulatives freely, students should be encouraged to grab whatever manipulative they feel will help them succeed. We have seen an enormous impact and boost of confi- dence in our students by allowing them to choose the right tools for their learning journey.

Math as Inquiry
An inquiry approach to mathematics lessens math anxiety. Inquiry enables students to move beyond memorizing steps they may forget or be unable to make sense of, to instead a deeper understanding of the concepts in math (Boaler, n.d.). Approaching math from an inquiry perspective flips the traditional order of lessons. Instead of beginning with the algorithm, or asking students to memorize con- cepts and then allowing for application, inquiry-based math starts with a rich, relevant problem that students can explore, dissect, and interrogate (Cal Poly, Liberal Studies). From this approach, students focus first on the problem aspect of math. From there, students can be led through a series of problem-solving steps, wherein they both individually and collaboratively work to find the answer. With teacher guidance, this leads to discovering ways to solve the prob- lem, rather than simply being told the algorithm to use. This allows for a rich discussion of how students arrived at the answers they got, allowing them to see multiple ways of thinking.

How do we begin to do this in our math classes? Particularly as stu- dents are often familiar with a certain flow of math lessons. Jo Boaler outlines the following steps for what she refers to as the Mathemati- cal Thinking Process that can engage all levels of math learners.

Think, Say, Draw: Have students read the question carefully, and take time to consider it fully. This can look like rereading it, drawing out what is happening, or exploring how the problem may look with manipulatives.
Discuss: At this step, students discuss with their classmates what they notice about the problem, what they are thinking about it, or even look to resources that they believe may help solve the problem.
Estimate: Next, students come up with an estimate of what they think the answer should be close to. This also allows for a consid- eration of the reasonableness of their answer.
Mathematize: Here, learners start to solve the problem, taking what they have thought about from the other steps, but now at- tempting to apply it to the number sense they already have.
Try it out and revise: As students mathematize, they try out the steps that they think may work. If it doesn’t, students collaborate to see the different methods of thinking or try a new approach.
Make sense: The final step, though it is a step that students are ideally doing throughout, is asking themselves, does my answer make sense? Is it reasonable given the situation?

Giving students time to manipulate and think deeply about the math concepts takes a focus away from the “right or wrong” nature of math, and instead makes room for the beauty of what math can be. For students with math anxiety, this opens up the world of math in a new way.

Students in our classrooms are grappling with anxiety. As we con- tinue to prepare learners for an uncertain future, we must ask our- selves what we truly want our students to be able to do. Whether in math class as ten-year-olds, as young adults in the workplace, or even as educators working to give students the best education possible, the skills of using the resources available to you, problem-solving, and exploring have relevance. Cultivating these habits in our learners not only allows them to be more confident mathematicians, it allows them to be more prepared for whatever they may encounter, in or outside of the classroom.


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About the Authors
Leah Holliday is a grade 5 teacher and team leader at Brent Inter- national School Manila. Previously, she worked at the International School of Hyderabad where she worked in a team to implement an inquiry-based program, and in her home country of the United States as a teacher-leader. She can be reached at lholliday@brent.

Haley Osbourne is a third-grade teacher at Brent International School Manila. She is the grade 3 team leader as well as the Lower School Math team leader. Previously she worked at an international school in Kuwait where she met her husband, a high school English teacher. She has been an international teacher since 2014.


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