Saturday, March 5, 2016

Declaring War on Math Anxiety!

Blank stares. Yesterday, I sat at my kidney shaped table with five students still struggling with long division and ten empty eyes stared back at me. Ten beautiful eyes that I've watched sparkle with curiosity and discovery this year. Ten eyes that were connected to five competent and bright brains. As a new teacher, those empty eyes would have frustrated me. I would have complained the students just weren't trying hard enough. After seven years in the classroom I know the truth. This is my fault. Somewhere along the path to mastering long division, I had slipped up and allowed these perfectly capable students to believe it was a concept too hard for them to grasp.

Anyone who has taught for very long and takes the time to truly connect to their students has seen this phenomena.  For some children when a problem is perceived as too difficult their brains simply shut down.  This is most evident to me in math. Specifically in math that requires multiple steps, such as long division.  Yesterday, one of my students who has mastered all of her multiplication facts could not tell me how many groups of 2 she could make from 4.  She was attempting to divide 47 by 2.  The multiple steps of Divide, Multiply, Subtract, Divide, Multiply, Subtract had her all discombobulated.  Once I started walking her through it and asked her what she would need to multiply by 2 to equal 4, she looked at me with those empty eyes.  Actually empty isn't the right description. Those pretty brown eyes were swimming with a mixture of fear, panic, and sadness. She has made great strides in math this year. She had begun to believe she is good in math and all of that confidence was crumbling in front of my eyes. I grabbed four markers because they were the closest objects to me, "Honey, divide these markers into two even groups." Yes, I call my students honey, honey bun, sweetie, darling, and the occasional sugar plum. I'm from south Alabama and these terms of endearment are as natural as the camelia trees blooming in January.

My student's hands trembled a little bit as she reached out for the markers. All of a sudden, those bright eyes flashed and looked up at me."Oh! It's 2. Like 2 x 2 = 4," she said before she dissolved into giggles. The other frustrated students around the table looked up from their work and started to giggle, too. Before I knew it they were all laughing out loud with her. What renders a bright student incapable of answering a question they could have answered without hesitation fifteen minutes before? 

I woke up before anyone in my house this morning and curled up on my sofa with a cup of tea determined to research the problem until I found out. I ran into a few roadblocks. First of all, it just took me three wordy paragraphs to explain the situation. I wasn't sure how to type that into a Google search. Most of my searches for students blanking or freezing brought up examples of children with serious attachment issues or autism. There are good articles on test anxiety. I assume it is related to this issue, but it isn't exactly the same. We were still in the explaining and teaching phase. I have children standing on the edge of a cliff, but I'm right beside them. I want to know how to walk children back from that ledge with my words and actions.The best information I found was in an article by Dr. Rick Nauert on He reports on a study from Stanford University School of Medicine that involved scanning the brains of 2nd and 3rd graders as they completed math problems. According to Dr. Nauert's article, "They discovered that those that felt panicky about doing math had increased activity in brain regions associated with fear, which cause decreased activity in parts of the brain involved in problem-solving." This tell me that when one of my students looks at me with those blank eyes, I need to stop.  I've already lost them. Their problem-solving part of the brain has already gone to sleep. 

The study divided the students into two groups. One group claimed they felt panicky about doing math and the others didn't. Although the article didn't state it, I'm going to assume that those students who claimed they feel panicky about doing math would also claim they were bad in math. The interesting part of the study is that the children in both groups had similar IQs, reading and math abilities, working memory and generalized anxiety levels.  Math anxiety is real, folks, and it isn't related to ability. Isn't related to ability? Students who feel they are bad in math, may have just as much ability to tackle math as the "good math students?" Maybe I'm making too big of a leap but maybe there is no such thing as being bad in math.  After all, I know all of my students are capable of mastering third grade math. A few may take a little longer to grasp it, but they are all going to be able to do long division by the end of the year. Instead of spending hours on Pinterest and TPT looking for a better way to explain it, perhaps I need to spend more time looking for ways to ease that anxiety, so the problem solving center of their brains will be able to shine. Good thing we have an awesome school counselor and two of my dearest friends are phenomenal psychologists.  I have some phone calls to make. I'll keep you updated as my rowdy kids and I launch our war on math anxiety!

I highly recommend you read Dr. Nauert's entire article. It has excellent information.