“Some children aren’t designed to be good at math”: A common misconception.
Math anxiety possesses the capability to turn a bright, young, eager, mind into an anxiety filled mess at a frightening rate but is this the reality for all children, of all ages? Majority of readers will shake their heads fairly quickly and say that this statement is wrong. My question to the readers is, why? It has become the popular stance to be frightened of math, with many people exclaiming that “they just aren’t good with numbers” yet are these individuals questioned as to how they reached this point of math avoidance? If the relationship between math anxiety and age of onset was better understood, perhaps interventions could be staged at pivotal points in a child’s developmental process to prevent this from happening.
Every fear originates from somewhere.
Human beings acquire fears solely through the basis of living their lives, so it seems erroneous to conclude that a child is math anxious because of their personality. The question begs to be answered, when does an individual become aware of their math anxiety? As defined by Ashcraft (2002), math anxiety is commonly defined as a “feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear that interferes with math performance” (p.181). Let’s apply this concept to present day literature conducted by Hill et al. (2016) in which primary and secondary children were focused on. The researchers were interested whether there would be differences in levels of math anxiety between boys and girls in the primary settings, the secondary settings, and overall. As well, the relationship between math anxiety and math performance (how individuals with high and low math anxiety will perform on math tests) was observed in primary and secondary samples. Lastly, the researchers investigated whether math anxiety could be grouped together with generalized anxiety, or if this was a separate process from general anxiety entirely. Researchers concluded that girls show a higher amount of math anxiety than boys, and this finding was found in the younger and older samples. Interestingly enough, there were no differences between boys and girls on their ability to perform mathematically, just their anxiety levels. In contrast, only students in secondary school were observed to have math anxiety which impacted their mathematical performance. Lastly, math anxiety still influenced how well a student performed on their math test even when generalized anxiety (anxiety with no specified source) was taken into account. I believe that this correlational research is pivotal when understanding the onset of math anxiety, and its influence on younger and older students.
Is socialization the root of all mathematical evil?
After discussing the findings from Hill et al. (2016), let us revisit the two questions that were stated in the beginning of this blog. Are all children math anxious, and how do individuals reach the point of being math anxious? There are many ideas that researchers believe are the reason that not all children are math anxious. One popular and heavily researched idea involves working memory deficits in highly math-anxious individuals (Ashcraft & Kirk, 2001). Working memory is the aspect of an individual’s memory which temporarily holds a limited amount of information. An excellent instance of when your working memory is utilized, is when you are trying to remember a phone number long enough to dial it into your phone. Without a properly functioning working memory, you would not be able to remember the number in its entirety, and this is similar to what highly math-anxious individuals are proposed to experience. Highly math anxious individuals are so preoccupied with their anxiety that it eats into their working memory capacity, which leaves little working memory for the math question itself, which results in poor performance.
So how do individuals reach the point of being math anxious? If we relate this question back to the Hill et al. (2016) study, it appears that boys and girls are equally capable at math, yet girls in primary and secondary schools experience higher math anxiety than their male peers. This suggests that socialization may play an important role in how females perceive their mathematical abilities. The effect that is at work is dubbed a “Gender Stereotype” and consists of information that society deems acceptable or not depending on if you identify as a male or female. Specifically, females have been encouraged in the past to be domestic and nurturing while boys have been encouraged to become scientists and mathematicians. This effect is internalized (information that is taken from one’s external world, which is then turned into a belief of the individual) by young boys and girls, and will translate into corresponding levels of math anxiety.
The detrimental effects of math anxiety.
Much like generalized anxiety (an anxiety disorder in which there is no known threat), math anxiety can make an individual’s life much harder to live while even the simplest tasks will appear daunting. Taxes, budgeting, and tipping service workers are some of the everyday activities we partake in, which can be terrifying to an individual who is math anxious. This fear of math can result in an individual avoiding certain career paths due to mathematical components, unnecessary cognitive stress, and the inability to realize one’s full potential. By avoiding many aspects of their environment due to their math anxiety, individuals could experience a poorer quality of life, and suffer from low self-esteem. A society that consists of individuals not operating to their fullest potential is a society that is not progressive.
Okay, math anxiety is real and it’s scary! Now what?
Hill et al. (2016) raise important societal issues that are having a severe rippling effect on our youth. This journal provides readers with a comprehensive understanding of what math anxiety is, and when it becomes prevalent. By being given this timeline, appropriate interventions can be implemented into educational curriculums to attempt to reverse and even prevent math anxiety from becoming a reality. As well, this journal sparks the conversation regarding gender stereotyping within our society, and how appropriate efforts can be put forth to minimize the damage this does to our youth. A strategy that diffuses societal ideals such as “girls cannot do math”, is to begin educational campaigns where women are the focal point. The point should be made clear that women have equal opportunity and ability to their male counterparts, and young girls should be encouraged to seek out any type of career that sparks their interest. Lastly, individuals who are suffering from math anxiety struggle throughout their daily routines and require the appropriate social and educational support. This support may come in the form of tutoring or counselling, in order to create an environment where the math-anxious individual feels welcomed and most importantly, understood.
Math anxiety hinders everyone!
I suspect some of my readers will not be math-anxious and are reading this piece out of curiosity. I urge all readers to understand that we are only as strong as our weakest link. In order to create a strong, cohesive society, individuals who are suffering need additional attention in order to help them grow into the best versions of themselves. Without this, these individuals will never be able to function at their highest potential, and all of the satisfaction that comes with it.
By: Kristina Giacobbe
- Ashcraft, M. H. (2002). Math anxiety: Personal, educational, and cognitive consequences. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(5), 181-185.
- Ashcraft, M. H., & Kirk, E. P. (2001). The relationships among working memory, math anxiety, and performance. Journal of experimental psychology: General, 130(2), 224.
- Hill, F., Mammarella, C. I., Devine, A., Caviola, S., Passolunghi, C. M., & Szucs, D. (2016). Math anxiety in primary and secondary school students: Gender differences, developmental changes and anxiety specificity. Learning and Individual Differences 48.