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Calming Math Anxiety in Elementary School Students

Sweaty palms before math class are fairly common – and curable. Anxiety about math is fairly common and until recently was thought to be an issue for older students, not the younger set.  But new research in a study called Math Anxiety, Working Memory and Math Achievement in Early Elementary School from the University of Chicago Department of Psychology and Committee on Education led by Professor Sian Bielock, as well as several other studies in the US and abroad, reveal that symptoms can begin as early as the first grade.

Math anxiety Similar to stage fright, math anxiety conjures up fear around performance: that you won’t be able to do the math or the fear that it’s too hard or the fear of failure which often stems from having a lack of confidence. Of course, the more frustrated and anxious young minds become, the greater the chance for ‘drawing a blank.’ Added time pressure on math tests and exams also causes anxiety levels to spike for many students.

Snowballing effects  “Early math anxiety may lead to a snowball effect that exerts an increasing cost on math achievement over time by changing students’ attitudes and motivational approaches towards math, increasing math avoidance, and ultimately reducing math competence,” Beilock writes in the article. For the study, the researchers tested 88 first-graders and 66 second-graders from a large urban school system. Students were tested to measure their academic abilities, their working memory and their fear of mathematics. They were asked, on a sliding scale, how nervous they felt to go to the front of the room and work on a mathematics problem on the board. In a separate University of Chicago study, worry about math can trigger centers in the brain that cause physical pain.

Girls more anxious than boys In another 2012 report in the journal Behavioral and Brain Functions, high numbers of younger school-age children are found to feel anxious in mathematics. However, even though anxiety can impact the performance of both boys and girls, it is generally girls who tend to suffer more anxiety than boys. This associated fear and avoidance is what can lead to a lower percentage of girls involved in STEM education.

Where it comes from Math anxiety usually begins with unpleasant experiences in the math classroom. Typically math performance in classrooms demands an over reliance on procedures as opposed to a primary focus on understanding math concepts and empowering students to think critically and analyze a problem before being simply shown what to do. Trying to memorize procedures rather than understanding math concepts, rules and routines without much understanding, often causes the math to quickly be forgotten, which is when panic sets in for learners.  Too many adults believe they aren’t good at mathematics because “there’s too much you have to remember.”

The cure? Staying calm and confident The DreamBox environment is designed to be a friendly, game-like, and anxiety-free math learning space for K-5 students. Its adaptive online learning environment ensures that students work in their specific optimal learning zone and focuses students on conceptually understanding the relationships between numbers, which results in improved fluency and better memory. DreamBox can adapt the level of difficulty, scaffolding, sequencing, and the number of hints, the pacing—all in real-time—allowing students of all levels to progress at a pace that suits them and in a way that increases understanding instead of relying too heavily on memorization and rote learning. It instills the confidence and sense of mastery that keeps students coming back for more —instead of avoiding or fearing math.

Find out more about DreamBox has earned awards by making math learning effective and pleasurable for kids.

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