Overcoming math anxiety: 9 tips to help your child—and yourself

For families

“Can you help me with my math homework?”

For many parents, these words can evoke a tidal wave of anxious thoughts. “I don’t remember a thing about math…” “I hated every minute of my math classes…” “I have no idea how to get the right answer, so how can I be expected to help my kids?” 

Rest assured, you are not alone. Math anxiety is common amongst both children and their parents, particularly those taught by teachers who felt under confident in their own mathematical skills. However, rather than perpetuate this cycle, child learning experts suggest for families to embrace this learning opportunity together. 

How to overcome math anxiety

The following math tips for parents do not require you to be any kind of whiz with numbers, only to apply the same common sense you would call upon to master any new skill. In fact, in the process of creating a supportive learning framework for your child, you may even discover a whole new appreciation for the role of math in your own life. 

1. Size up the situation

The first step in learning how to improve your child's mathematical skills is to inventory their overall learning strengths. What subjects appear to come much easier (and, therefore, more enjoyably) to them? What kind of hobbies or family activities do they love?

One certain clue is to notice how they spend unstructured free time. Are they naturally athletic, artistic, or drawn to history or science programs? Do they love to cook, design apps, build forts, knit, perform magic tricks, etc.? With a little creativity, just about any topic can be used to help reduce math anxiety by showing how often numbers crop up in our daily lives. 

2. Gather more information

Once you have examined your child’s earning patterns and preferences, you will want to consult with the best expert in how to help your child with math at home: their teacher. Just make sure to keep it positive, and adopt a “yes, and…” approach to brainstorming solutions. For example, even if you are temporarily taken aback by a critical observation of the teacher (“What do you mean my child never turns in their homework?”), try to fully hear them out, and think of examples from home life where your child behave similarly. 

Remember, it is entirely possible that your child acts differently at school than at home for a number of extenuating reasons, such as social dynamics you are unaware of. Rather than reject the teacher’s assessment out of hand, you will want to work together to see how your perspectives may work together to paint a more complete version of the issue. 

3. Identify when math appears in daily life

The real goal of learning is not to ace a standardized test; it is to grant your child a body of skills they can tap into to improve all areas of their life moving forward. If you look around, opportunities to use math abound! For example, you might try:

  • Determining whether the sale price at the store presents savings over the generic brand by identifying the price per pound
  • Doubling a chocolate chip cookie recipe (accidentally quadrupling the salt will probably have them checking their calculations in the future!)
  • Using a pro ball player’s batting average to predict the outcome of a game
  • Calculating the sale price on an article of clothing, offering to consider purchasing it if the price falls a certain percentage under MSRP

Treat these challenges like a low-stakes game with the potential of tangible rewards, and you may find your child begins to challenge you!

4. Avoid negative language

Although you may still feel traumatized from your own school days, be careful about how you present these feelings to your child. Unlike earlier generations, brand new, student-centered methods for teaching math to improve children’s mathematical skills have become common practice. Still, many parents may harbor a historic distaste for the subject. 

Every “Oh, I was just terrible at long division,” or, “I still don’t understand the point of algebra,” though intended to provide sympathy, only normalizes your child’s resistance to the subject, when what you really want is to validate their very natural fear of mastering a new skill. The former only creates further aversion; the latter establishes a whole new opportunity to build self-esteem. 

5. Distinguish between effort and performance

When helping your child learn mathematics, it is critical to make a distinction between the factors under their direct control, such as the amount of time and focus spent on homework, and the immediate outcomes of those efforts. Bad days happen to everyone, and it is entirely possible that a child may be working tenaciously, yet have a rough pop quiz, misunderstand what material would be covered on a test, etc. 

Ideally, increased effort yields better grades (if it is not, that is a great opportunity to try out some new approaches). However, you also want to praise your child for learning how to work “smart, not hard,” such as figuring out that doing their math homework first thing on Saturday morning takes a fraction of the time as Sunday evening.

6. Set a daily check-in time

Mounting evidence suggests that students retain more information through frequent, short-term study sessions. By establishing these as part of your regular daily routine alongside daily tasks like brushing their teeth and walking the dog, these quickly become habitual, and gradually become another ordinary activity. 

Rather than the traditional “have you finished your math homework?” exchange, consider setting a ten-minute meeting directly before your child starts their homework, so they can create a list of everything that needs to be accomplished that evening. That way, they can move forward with a clearer set of objectives on how to maximize their time. 

7. Let the student be the teacher

When studying together, do not stop once reaching the correct answer. Instead, ask your child to explain back to you how, exactly, they arrived at the solution. 

There is no better way to master a subject than to teach it to someone else. By reversing roles with your child, and asking them to explain to you how to solve a problem, they are required to tap into a host of critical thinking skills, as well as practice clear communication. Talk about skills that are likely to serve them later on in life!

8. Practice (and model) patience

Although it may be tempting to put the cart before the horse and measure your child’s progress through grades alone, it is worth taking the time and care to help really establish superior learning habits.

Set your sights on addressing specific, measurable behaviors, such as making sure that your child is completing their homework every day, that they are attending special study sessions at a set time every evening, or that they are consistently keeping up your daily math meetings. Make sure to praise these efforts precisely the same way as you might grades, as they will create the bedrock for improved performance over time. 

9. Consider hiring a math tutor (for both of you!)

Tutors, like any kind of coach, are not only helpful as a last resort. Skilled tutors, such as the experienced educators at Remind, can spot all sorts of unique opportunities to help your children overcome math anxiety. In addition, they can offer additional exercises for you and your child to complete together, designed with both of your strengths in mind. 

Besides, what better way to promote a life-long love of learning than by modeling the benefits first hand?