Widespread panic: Why math anxiety continues to multiply

By: Vanessa Garcia


One look at math word problems and many students cringe.

Even worse, many elementary school teachers seem to have the same reaction.

Math anxiety, a fear that first gained recognition as a feminist issue in the 1970s, remains a big problem that psychologists, educators, and parents are trying to crack.

A negative emotional reaction to math or even the prospect of solving a problem that has to do with mathematics, math anxiety is now the topic of many books, research papers and seminars.

Sheila Tobias, author of Overcoming Math Anxiety (W.W. Norton & Co., $16.95), started studying the phenomenon three decades ago when she noticed girls were doing poorly in math in school and not seeking out math-influenced careers, such as engineering. She now notes a tremendous modern shift in more girls pursuing math-related fields, although females as a group still report more math anxiety than males.

Some studies show that the one of the causes may be teachers themselves.
Last year, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published an article called “Female teachers’ math anxiety affects girls’ math achievement,” co-written by Sian Beilock, a University of Chicago associate professor of psychology. The paper cited research that shows female math teachers carry a good deal of math anxiety into their classrooms, affecting the behavior of their female students.

“Children are more likely to emulate the behavior and attitudes of the same gender vs. opposite-gender adults,” Beilock wrote.

And because most elementary teachers in the United States are women (more than 90 percent), girls are more likely than boys to be influenced by this problem.

Some experts suggest that one solution is to raise the bar on minimal mathematics requirements for elementary school teachers.

Teachers have to deal with their own anxiety first, agreed Walter Secada, a professor and senior associate dean at the University of Miami’s School of Education and a former math professor.

“Before you drill, make sure you know the skill,” Secada said.
The stakes are much higher than a failing grade on a report card, and the problem isn’t entirely associated with gender.

“Educators who fail to recognize the signs of math anxiety [hinder] further development,” said Carol Warner, an associate professor of mathematics and academic coordinator of math for Barry University’s School of Adult and Continuing Education. “The U.S. economy depends on students with a strong mathematical background. If the great technical advances in energy, the environment, medicine, and information are elsewhere, so will be the jobs in the future.”

Beilock, the Chicago researcher, agrees the problem is not just limited to women, and that there’s a need for more studies on math anxiety within other communities, such as blacks and new immigrants.

Tobias, the author, points to studies on math anxiety among minorities by such researchers as the University of Texas’ Philip Uri Treisman. “What we learn from those studies,” she said, “is that Asian Americans do better not because they are better at math, but because they create study groups or study gangs, whereas an African American student is more likely to deal with and struggle through problems alone.”

While such support systems help, the real solution is prevention, Tobias said.
“Don’t make kids anxious to begin with,” Secada at UM agreed.

That’s often a struggle with today’s test-centric teaching. The emphasis on standardized testing “reduces innovative instruction by forcing teachers to ‘teach to the test,’ ” Barry’s Warner said. “Students feel the anxiety introduced into the classroom surrounding these tests, which often perpetuates a further downward spiral for those who are already math anxious.”

Beilock suggests having students write for 10 minutes about their anxiety before a high-stakes test. Writing about what worries you can help curb negative thoughts and free-up your thinking to do what it needs to do, she said.

UM’s Secada advises going back to the basics.
“Even if you think you’re too old for them, try to ‘understand’ concepts behind math first and foremost,” he said.


  • Bring math into everyday life. Have your kids figure out math problems while cooking, for instance.
  • Encourage your child to speak up and ask questions if he or she doesn’t understand math principles.
  • Have discussions about math. Don’t focus on “the answer;” discuss concepts as you would a good book.
  • Hold your tongue when it comes to “negative” math talk. Kids will pick up on your own anxiety.
  • Advise children to first find a problem they know they can solve to gain confidence, then go back to the others.
  • Don’t let your kids save math homework as the last thing they do. Do it first before fatigue sets in.
  • Remember: Math is not an aptitude you’re born with; it’s an acquired skill.

About Vanessa Garcia

Vanessa Garcia is a writer and mulit-media artist