Yes, Math Anxiety Is Real. How Do We Overcome It?

Yes, Math Anxiety Is Real. How Do We Overcome It?


According to the EdWeek Research Center, “…Nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults report severe math anxiety, and the vast majority report at least some level of discomfort with the subject.” In their survey, 67 percent said that math anxiety was a challenge for their students, and 1 in 4 said they often feel anxious doing math themselves.

Even Einstein reportedly acknowledged his math woes, advising not to “worry about your difficulties in mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater.” Fear over this revered and “beyond my reach” subject promotes “I am not a math person” thinking. 

Yes, mathematics phobias are real. Understanding how they happen and how to overcome them is within reach.

How The Heart and Head Come Together In the Classroom

The independent hierarchies of Maslow and Bloom give structure to incorporating the heart (Maslow) and the head (Bloom) in the delivery of classroom teaching and student learning. Maslow’s hierarchy focuses on social, emotional, and physiological well-being, while Bloom’s hierarchy focuses on cognitive demand and progression. A learner-centered classroom results from a thoughtful, well-planned, and balanced integration of the two. The term “warm demander” comes to mind. Students thrive in a classroom where the teacher demands persistence and excellence in the context of a trusting, connected, and collaborative environment. An August 2019 article titled “Why Social & Emotional Learning Matters” by John Brown, Clinical Associate Professor of Education at the University of Massachusetts, featured a model intersecting the work of Maslow and Bloom.


Certainly, the connected power of the two theories and their contributions to the whole learner is without question. However, the two aren’t quite a “first this, then this” proposition. The challenges of life and learning would suggest the social, emotional, and academic needs of students are constantly changing in relation to home and school circumstances. Divorce, homelessness, joblessness, relocation, and school changes amidst the impacts of mental health and social media require a recursive observation of and tending to students' social, emotional, and academic needs at home and in school.

Are We Projecting Our Math Anxieties On Students?

Mathematics Context, Content, Confidence, and Achievement 

Perhaps a better visual representation for the integration of Maslow and Bloom’s theories is a double helix, with each theory strengthening the other. Students thrive in a classroom where the mathematics teacher demands persistence with the content in the context of a trusting, connected, and collaborative environment. 

Research says that students’ mathematical phobias start in early elementary school and are often the result of messaging from caregivers, teachers, and others about their own lack of confidence, skills, and experiences in mathematics. Such messaging can provide a ready-made excuse or a fixed mindset about their own mathematics abilities because others around them didn’t do well in mathematics;  so why is it a problem? The result is often a failure to persist in attempts to understand and apply mathematical concepts. While the seed for mathematics insecurity seems to get planted unintentionally, efforts to restore confidence and a ”can-do” attitude must be implicit and explicit. Examples of strategies that encourage students to persevere include: 

1. Frequent, one-to-one or small group instruction

2. Build authentic relationships with the students

3. Create a culture of error and curiosity so students aren’t deterred by fear of “getting it wrong”

School systems must continually respond to change as debates about education policy, programs, and practices have exploded. Rapidly shifting ideologies, policies and regulations create conditions of constant change for educators. 

What must not change is the understanding that students need the head and the heart in every classroom. All classrooms are ripe for cultivating and nurturing trusting and collaborative relationships where students feel supported, connected, and respected in their quest to learn rigorous and sometimes scary content like mathematics. Proper support, interventions, and encouragement transcend students from deficit thinking about mathematics to positive experiences leading to mathematics achievement.

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