Student writing on whiteboard
Maskot / iStock
Teaching Strategies

Getting to the Root of Math Anxiety

When kids see themselves as capable mathematicians, it sets the stage for tackling more challenging work.

September 29, 2023

Negative feelings about math can set in as early as kindergarten research shows, and by middle school, many students may throw in the towel and decide that they “just aren’t math people,” write math educators Kasi Allen and Kemble Schnell in the journal Math Teaching in Middle School

“At a time when they might be embracing math as a powerful tool for reading their world, young people can instead succumb to fixed mindsets, the perpetuation of math myths, and a compromised relationship with math, thus affecting their school and career trajectory for the rest of their lives,” note Allen and Schnell 

But there’s a developmentally “unique opportunity,” as students develop a sense of who they are in early adolescence, to make informed instructional choices and create classroom environments that help steer “students’ mathematical development in a more positive direction,” the authors suggest.  

To help drive students’ “emerging mathematics identities” in a positive direction, Jennifer M. Bay-Williams, a math educator and professor at the University of Louisville’s College of Education & Human Development, suggests planning activities designed to get students seeing themselves as “doers of mathematics,” she writes in the journal Mathematics Teacher: Learning and Teaching PK-12. “We have so many students who do not feel they are good at mathematics and do not like it. Those identities are developed in our classrooms and schools,” Bay-Williams writes. “Think about the practices you may implement that result in students, even if only a few, feeling inadequate. … How can those opportunities be adapted to ones that help students recognize their strengths and acknowledge that they can do mathematics?”

Here are eight ways to help students develop positive math identities in the classroom. 

Identity Math Superpowers: When students use a definitive statement like, “I’m bad at math,” they may actually mean, “I don’t understand how to calculate the perimeter of an object,” writes seventh- and eighth-grade math teacher Aristotle Ou on Twitter. But math identities can be multifaceted, Ou notes, and “some students see themselves as good in geometry, in algebra, in following procedures, in fractions, in decimals.” 

To get at some of these subtle distinctions, ask students to identify and write down their math superpower—something they feel confident doing in math—whether that’s solving for variables, or graphing linear equations, suggests instructional coach Asheley Harris. Add each student’s self-identified strength to a list or spreadsheet and display it in the classroom. Suddenly students now have “20 experts to go to when they need help,” Harris says, and a fresh perspective shift—though they may still struggle in various areas of math learning, they are good at something. 

Take Math Out of the Classroom: A common misconception is that math amounts to little more than “memorizing steps and algorithms, getting answers quickly, and being right,” writes curriculum author and former math teacher Deborah Peart. To broaden kids’ concept of math, offer rich, creative opportunities for them to explore real-world applications of math—anything from baking, to music, art, and dance. 

For example, a common rite of passage for teens—going out to dinner with friends, sans adults—may require understanding how to split a check multiple ways. At the Suzhou Singapore International School in China, third- to fifth-grade students use real restaurant menus to role play, ordering fictional meals and then determining how much they each owe. Don’t forget tax and tip!

Compose Math Memoirs: To encourage students to reflect on their developing math identities, ask them to pen math autobiographies, educator Rolanda Baldwin suggests. Students can respond to prompts like “How do you feel about math?” or “How did your relationship with math change over time?” To show students they aren’t the only ones who struggle in this subject, consider breaking the class into small groups and having students share their responses with peers. 

Or try Allen and Schnell’s take on “mathographies,” where students create a piece of artwork that illustrates who they are and want to be as mathematicians. Ask students to add their “strengths, challenges, and ways they plan to actively contribute toward our math community this year.” Allen and Schnell also have students write mid-year and end-of-year reflections, “a revision of the initial mathography, encouraging students to evaluate their progress and articulate goals for the months ahead.” 

Map Math Moods: In high school teacher Chanea Bond’s English classroom, she asks students to share words they associate with the act of reading using a color-coded feelings wheel. Next, she puts their answers into a word cloud generator, so they can observe the patterns together. The words that are used at the highest frequency appear largest in the cloud: like “happy” or “boring.” 

Easily adapted to math class, this activity can provide a quick temperature check on how students feel about math, and indicate where one-on-one discussions that dig deeper might be helpful. “I can deal with ‘boring,’” Bond writes, “but ‘irritated’ is a very specific feeling and I need to talk to that student about their experiences with reading.” 

Challenge Math Beliefs: Would someone who is good at mathematics be obedient? Though it may not be a word students organically bring up, educators Keith R. Leatham and Diane S. Hill discovered a few of their pre-algebra students view math as a world of non-negotiable rules. “The rule 2 + 2 always had to equal 4,” Leatham and Hill write. “Looking at it that way, there are a lot of rules. No wonder students feel overwhelmed by all the rules they have to learn and obey.” 

Using a descriptive word task can help students surface their beliefs—positive and negative—around what it means to be “good at math,” Leatham and Hill explain. Start by drawing a number line on the board displaying the numbers 0-5 and share a list of words with the class like, “arrogant, confident, creative, humble, motivated, obedient, organized, and resourceful.” Ask students to place each word “according to how well [they] think it describes someone who is good at math.” Or, in a whole-class discussion, ask students to raise 0-5 fingers, reflecting where they would place each word on the line. Create space for students to share their reasoning behind each decision, and take note of potential areas for further discussion and growth. 

Focus on Mindsets: For some students, it may seem easier to embrace a negative math identity when facing struggles in math class, especially when the failures begin to accumulate, write veteran researchers Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers. But a flexible mindset “focuses on the gains that are possible when students persevere through learning challenges.” 

Model practical optimism in the classroom to help offset this tendency, Wilson and Conyers suggest, for example by using phrases like, “We knew this would be a tough project, but we stuck with it and worked hard. Just look at what we’ve accomplished!” Consider sharing stories of overcoming your own obstacles in learning math, normalizing struggle and showing students that “everyone occasionally faces learning challenges,” even adults. 

Explore How Math Makes Students Feel: Bay-Williams draws inspiration from Leatham and Hill’s playbook, asking students to “rate their feelings across a continuum of doing mathematics.” Have students draw two lines in their notebooks, placing one point at the very left end and very right end of each line. On one end of the first line, they will label a point “pain” and on the other side, “enjoyment.” Likewise with the second line, they will label one point “not good at math,” and the other side’s point “good at math.” 

Students then draw an additional point on the line that represents how they would rate themselves on that continuum. Discussion of why students have assessed themselves this way and what may help them to move in a more positive direction can surface helpful insights. “We have found that students often place themselves in quite different places than we would place them—or in similar places but for reasons that differ greatly from our suppositions,” explain Leatham and Hill.

Document Math Successes: “A positive math identity can be fleeting—sometimes a moment, a unit, a year,” notes Ou. But it can become increasingly durable the more it’s acknowledged and nurtured. A success file—a living record that “provides ready evidence to help students internalize and remember their learning successes,” Wilson and Conyers write—offers students proof of their cumulative steps toward a positive future with math.

Provide each student with a paper folder that will serve as their success file. They can make it their own by simply writing the word success on it, or personalizing it in ways that illustrate success for them, write Wilson and Conyers. As often as possible, ideally daily, remind students to add examples of their work to the folder that “support their personal definitions of success,” from completed tasks and assignments to documentation of times they’ve learned something. The file can be reviewed regularly. “The more students can reconnect to their previous achievements, the more positive their mindsets can become and the more successful they’ll be in the long run,” Wilson and Conyers conclude. 

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Teaching Strategies
  • Critical Thinking
  • Student Engagement
  • Math
  • 6-8 Middle School

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Edutopia is an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.