10 Tips to Overcome the Fear of Maths

Mathematics phobia or math anxiety can adversely affect the way your child learns and performs in the subject. Here are tips to help your child ace the numbers game!

By Dr Priscilla J S Selvaraj

10 Tips to Overcome the Fear of Maths

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER, 2019) by Pratham has made shocking revelations about the mathematical skills of Indian students — there has been minimal improvement since 2008. The report says, "among children in Std III, 7.6% cannot even recognize numbers 1-9, 26.9% can recognize numbers up to 9 but cannot recognize numbers up to 99 or higher, 37.5% can recognize numbers up to 99 but cannot do subtraction, 19.6% can do subtraction but cannot do division, and 8.5% can do division."

Acclaimed mathematician Ritabrata Munshi, recipient of the prestigious ICTP Ramanujan Prize and the 2017 Infosys Prize in Mathematical Sciences, believes that the ASER report, though shocking, is not surprising. "Primary education is in bad shape and I know that there are people seriously examining how to turn things around. Hopefully, they will come up with some new ideas," he says.

Fear of math or mathematics phobia, apart from the bad condition of primary education, is also a reason for poor performance in maths.

Overcoming maths phobia in schools

"At the primary level there are only two ways to teach. The worst way, of course, is that you make students work on mathematical equations like a routine task. It is like making them run around the field without letting them play in it. The better way is to get them involved and make the subject interesting. Maths can be easily made interesting with the use of visual aids. The main issue, however, is that we need dedicated Maths teachers. If the government gives some incentives to them, maybe that will help," adds Ritabrata.

In Maths, children need role models like a Dhoni or a Kohli. If we tell them stories about mathematicians and scientists like Ramanujan and JC Bose — their achievements and what they did for science and the country — maybe then, students will be inspired to pursue the subject. The fear of Maths

But, did you know that math anxiety is a serious problem? In fact, the term 'Mathophobia' has been coined to describe the feeling of fear, tension and anxiety about one’s ability to do Maths. This fear interferes with a child's ability to perform well in Maths.

So, how can you help your child who is gripped by mathematics phobia? “Always do what you are afraid to do,” said the American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson. And, that is exactly what you should encourage your child to do — not to shy away from Maths but rather, to embrace it.

Here are ten tips, based on inputs from Dr Robinson Thamburaj, Associate Professor, Department of Mathematics, Madras Christian College, to help your child overcome Mathophobia.

  1. Be positive: 'I’m not good in Maths; I am stupid'. Such thoughts can hurt your child’s self-esteem and confidence. Help your child understand that everyone has different abilities and he should be proud of his other accomplishments. Some extra effort from him and a little additional help will certainly help him do well in the subject. Such a positive outlook will boost his confidence and help him focus and perform better.
  2. Face it squarely: Sit with your child and discuss her fear of Maths. Help your child acknowledge the fact that she may not be enjoying the same comfort level with Maths as she does with other subjects. Acceptance is always the first step towards tackling any problem.
  3. Encourage practice: Repeatedly working on maths problems helps improve mathematical skills. Therefore, encourage your child to solve maths problems every day. Set aside a particular time for this practice. Investing extra time and effort will bring about a great change in both attitude and performance. If necessary, hire a maths tutor to coach your child.
  4. Make Maths simple and fun: Simplify the learning method. Even complicated problems can be made easy by breaking them down into smaller, simpler steps. Involve your child in Maths games, puzzles and apps to make the process an enjoyable experience.
  5. Perceive Maths as a creative subject: The general notion is that Maths is not creative. Encourage your child to experiment with different ways of solving a problem. Introduce her to open-ended problems such as figuring out how many ways you can make a ‘5’ by using the numbers 0 through 9 and ‘+’ and ‘-’ operations. Activity-based Maths learning involving paper-folding and dartboards will also ensure creativity.
  6. Apply it in daily life: Try to integrate Maths into your child’s daily life, to make it more real and meaningful. When you go shopping, let your child pay for the purchases and collect the change. Reinforce the concept of fractions through slicing and sharing pizza. Cook together and get your child to measure portions for the recipe. Skip count while playing rope. Teach geometrical properties while drawing traditional patterns of Kolam or Rangoli. Such hands-on activities will ensure experiential learning.
  7. Encourage peer learning: Pair-work and group-work to solve Maths problems can be effective ways of reinforcing concepts learnt.
  8. Find out the root cause: It is essential to identify the root cause of the fear of maths and to look out for maths anxiety symptoms. Could it be that your child's early foundation in Maths was weak? Or, were his teachers not too enthusiastic about the subject? Was the method of teaching dull and uninteresting, based on formulae and procedures without explanation of underlying concepts? Sometimes, it just may be a fear of tests that causes Mathophobia. So, try not to place too much emphasis on tests. Also, avoid timed tests, as a focus on speed only adds to the anxiety and tension.
  9. Give good reasons to study Maths: Help your child understand that for filing income tax returns or managing home budgets, she will need the help of numbers. A large percentage of jobs in the future will require Maths skills. A strong foundation in the subject will help develop both logical thinking and problem-solving skills. Such motivation will lead to positive results.
  10. Set an example: A parent’s attitude towards Maths tends to reflect in the child’s outlook too. As a parent, avoid making statements like, 'Maths is so hard', or 'I hate Maths'. Instead, encourage your child by saying things like, 'Maths was difficult for me because I didn’t get the right kind of support. Today, there are so many good resources online, fun activities and videos, which can help us both get better at the subject'.

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About the experts:

Dr Robinson Thamburaj is an Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics, Madras Christian College.

Ritabrata Munshi is the recipient of several awards including the SwarnaJayanti Fellowship (2012), Birla Science Prize (2013), Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize (2015), Infosys Prize (2017) and ICTP Ramanujan Prize (2018). He was elected a fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences in 2016 and was an invited speaker at the International Congress of Mathematicians, Rio de Janeiro, 2018.

About the author:

Written by Dr Priscilla J S Selvaraj, PhD (Eng & Edu) on 4 November 2016; updated on 1 October 2019.

The author is an educationist, language specialist and writer. In a career spanning over two decades, she has taught from preschool to B-School and trained teachers, master trainers and software professionals. She is also a former member of curriculum and syllabus development committees (Govt of Tamil Nadu). Her passion for the written word matches her enthusiasm for entertaining little kids by breaking out into nursery rhymes.

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