By Sean Alexander

Many students have math anxiety. They simply have had a terrible experience with the subject of mathematics.  They consider math a tedious subject they’d do away within a heartbeat given the opportunity. 

Have you noticed your child shuts down around the subject of mathematics?  Do they feel inferior to their friends?   Do they avoid math homework at all costs?  Then they have math anxiety which is a real phenomenon and can be overcome with some effort. 

This is why your student has math anxiety

A frustrated student with his head on his notebookAny student that struggles with mathematics has had an unfortunate event occur related to the subject. This usually occurs between the 3rd and 7th grades.  The most common event is a teacher embarrassing the student in front of the class.  Other usual suspects include:

  • Missing a semester of school
  • An injury that kept the student out of class
  • Being put on the advanced track too soon
  • Their friends are more advanced in math
  • Moving from one school to another

Every student that struggles with math without exception has had one of these traumatic events.  The natural response is to decide that math is just not for them.  They were born incapable of doing math.  It turns out there is a lot of psychology behind this sort of anxiety.

When the student assumes that they are born incapable of doing math, they create an easy out for themselves.  It’s safer to be born with an impediment than to try math and fail.

From this point forward the student has decided to be bad at math. They will reject any evidence to the contrary as it will challenge their worldview.

This is where math anxiety kicks in.  The student will be afraid of their lack of math skills becoming public.  This is a primal fear of being the tribe's outcast and is a source of real anxiety.

The good news is that the student's world view of being bad at math is not based on reality.  It is a false narrative caused by a traumatic experience.  There are steps you can take to find a solution.

Math anxiety

Tools to Manage Math Anxiety

  • Talk to your teacher, that’s your first line of defense.  Some teachers are willing to meet with your student on a weekly basis.  This demonstrates to the teacher that your student cares about their grade and wants to do better.  This can have a big impact on your final grade.  As a former high school math teacher, I can confirm that students seeking your help have the final grade rounded up.  If the teacher has not seen your student all semester, there are no grounds to round.
  • Have your child form a study group with their peers that meets on a regular basis.  Working with friends in a safe environment where your child can feel relaxed can have a huge impact.  This is a necessary skill for survival in college.
  • Finding the right math tutor.  This is the most effective way to cure math anxiety.  It is imperative that the student's defense mechanism is not activated when engaging in a math session.  It’s common for parents to engage their students’ defense mechanisms when trying to help.  The parent/child teaching relationship does not go well in most cases.  We hear stories of parents attempts to tutor their children ending with tears and a shouting match.  If you had math anxiety before, how do you think a parent shouting at you is going to help the problem?  As you can guess, this will feed the false narrative and ensure a lifetime of math anxiety.  A trusted companion that provides a comfortable environment to make mistakes is invaluable for reducing math anxiety.

If math anxiety is what we are trying to cure, what trait are we trying to replace it with?  The answer is math confidence.  Confidence in mathematics is the most important trait for success.  When solving complex math problems you need the confidence to push through to the next step.  You need to trust the work you have done in order to move forward.  If you are uncertain about your work, you need to be able to back up and check your logic.  If you doubt yourself every step of the way you will develop math anxiety.  If you believe in yourself you will develop math confidence.

The good news is it doesn’t take much to turn things around for your student.  All it takes is one ‘ah ha’ moment for the tide to turn.  Our math tutoring works to achieve this moment rapidly.

Once a student understands how to do a problem, anxiety decreases, and confidence increases.  The trick is to seize the ‘ah ha’ moment and build momentum behind it.  Give your student another problem just like the one they figured out.  Have them do 5 problems in a row like the one they just figured out.  The confidence is building and the anxiety is decreasing.

Next step: make the problem a bit harder.  Give tons of encouragement along the way.  Recognize every moment of success.  Keep the momentum building.  Give the student an assignment on the same types of problems. This gives them a chance to try out their new skills on their own.

The narrative is starting to change.  The student begins to feel like they might actually be able to do the math.  The student begins to trust their work. Your student may have the confidence to reach out to friends in class. Working with friends will help them feel like part of the tribe.  Your student begins to participate in class discussions.

See how this works?

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Math anxiety is real and cureable.  There is no magic pill, it will take work.  The key is to give the student the support resources they need in order to work on their math while feeling safe.  I hope you have found this article useful, as always feel free to give us a call anytime at 415-312-4720.  Good luck!


  • Sean Alexander

    COMMAND PILOT, OWNER Sean has been a professional educator for 15 years and has taught math, physics, and astronomy at all levels.  His experience ranges from working at a high school for severe learning differences to teaching advanced physics at Stanford.  After completing his graduate work in theoretical physics Sean founded Alexander Tutoring, with the mission of revealing the deep connections between math and nature to as many students as possible. 

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