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Overcoming Math Anxiety

It was time for my kindergartner to expand her mathematical horizons. After spending nearly two years successfully negotiating Level One of her favorite software program, I suggested that perhaps she was ready to try Level Two. "Oh, no, Mommy, I can't do that," she cried, panic in her eyes. Why? "I'd have to do arithmetic!"

Though vocabulary is her strength, it didn't get her off the hook here. "Okay," I said, "What's two plus three?" encouraging her to count on her fingers.

"Five!" she proudly replied.

"See, you can do arithmetic!"

"That's arithmetic?" she gasped.

If only all math fears could be so handily dispatched! Whether your child panics at the thought of adding fractions or figuring the volume of a sphere, math fear can be conquered. All it takes is a little empathy, a lot of patience, and a desire to get to the root of the problem.

"Anxiety generally stems not from lack of ability but from past experience," says Charles Springer, a seventh-grade math teacher in Williamsburg, VA. It may have started when your child was asked to solve a problem at the blackboard by himself. Perhaps he was ridiculed for getting the wrong answer in class. Or it could be the memory of that test that made his palms sweat and his mind go blank. Whatever the source, the math phobic usually believes that he simply cannot do math, that he lacks something that helps his peers succeed.

So what can you do when your child comes to you, frustrated, upset, and ready to give up? "Give him a hug," suggests Patricia Kenschaft, Ph.D., professor of mathematics at Montclair State University and author of Math Power: How to Help Your Child Love Math Even If You Don't ($15, Perseus Press). "Let him know that he is not in this alone. Assure him that math is hard, and while he can't just stop feeling frustrated, he can stop beating up on himself."

The next step is to guide him gently through the problem at hand. Ask him what he already knows and help him find the solution himself. "The child has to learn not only the math, but the process of enjoying the discovery," adds Kenschaft. The more he experiences that joy, the less anxious he will become.

What's Your Math Score?

A little positive reinforcement may get you and your child through tonight's homework, but you'll have to do more to abolish math fear. You don't need to be a math whiz, but you do need an open mind and the ability to enjoy learning along with your child. In fact, if you simply tell her how to solve the problem, you will rob her of the pride of finding the solution. Instead, ask questions, be attentive, and let your child teach you. Teaching math concepts to others, says Kenschaft, not only develops the child's ability, it also boosts her confidence. Springer agrees: "A good way to learn is to experiment. But the best way is to teach it to someone else."

That's good news for some of us parents who may have lived a few lifetimes since tackling a quadratic equation. But what if the sight of all those X's and Y's makes our eyes glaze over and our hearts do the cha-cha in our throats? "Parents owe it to their children not to show their own math anxiety," advises Sheila Tobias, an author and educator who has studied math as a feminist issue since the 1970s. "Children mimic, identify with, and take on the attributes of their parents. Parents must work on their own math fear."

If you suspect that you might be passing along your anxiety or avoidance to your child, identify its source and assess its severity. If your case is mild, triggered by a few decades of a relatively math-free life, pick up Solve Your Child's Math Problems: Quick and Easy Lessons for Parents, by Patricia D. Nordstrom ($22, Parachute Press). It will get you up-to-date on what your child is learning  -- from fractions to factorials. If the math lessons in that book traumatize you, you may want to try Tobias's Overcoming Math Anxiety ($13, W.W. Norton & Company). However, if your anxiety is deeply ingrained and your time is short, you may have to hide it from your child. Use it to empathize with his distress, but be careful not to reinforce his fear with your own.

Try a Little Help From Friends

Another way to calm nerves is to make math a group endeavor. Often when the pressure of finding the answer alone is lifted, children feel free to experiment, have fun, and get wrong answers. And as your child watches her peers struggling, she will discover that other kids are plagued by many of the same problems  -- that alone can be very reassuring. So ask two or three of your child's friends to come over once a week to do math homework. "It's always good for children to have an after-school math activity," says Tobias, "preferably something informal, with lots of talk." And it's a great opportunity for "math speak," something girls especially lack in their lives. "To learn math you've got to talk about it and think about it," adds Kenschaft. "As you speak, so you learn."

If the homework sessions work well, you may want to add some math games and activities of your own. The Annenberg/CPB Math and Science Project sells videos, activity guides, and worksheets designed for parents to share with their children . And the workbook series Family Math ($19, Equals Publications, University of California at Berkeley) has hundreds of hands-on activities for kids, using food and other household items.

Some cases of math misery are more chronic. Don't give up; help your child confront the negative voices that are defeating him. Have him keep a math journal to pinpoint the causes of his distress. Or try this tip from Tobias: Have your child fold a piece of scratch paper in half vertically before he starts working. On the right side, he should try to solve the problem. When he hits a roadblock, have him write down his thoughts on the left. Not only will this process root out those discouraging voices, it will also keep him scribbling, and that alone can help. If he stays on a task long enough, he is more likely to solve the problem himself. Nothing conquers math fear like success.

If your child continues to have a debilitating aversion to math, don't wait to get professional help. Your child may need more than your encouragement to succeed. Your school's guidance counselor should be able to direct you to a tutorial service or a math counselor. Today's parents may have been able to avoid math for most of their lives, but our children do not have that luxury. More and more careers require math skills or computer understanding. So make sure your child feels comfortable asking questions when he does not understand. Help him accept his mistakes and move on. As Tobias reminds us: "The people who lose are not those who are wrong, but those who give up."