Children and fear of mathematics: tips for parents and teachers to overcome it

Source: Shutterstock

Deborah: I never liked math and I'm afraid my daughter got it from me. She just can't.

Regina: math is understood immediately or there is nothing to do.

Valerio: the problem with mathematics is how it is taught. Always and only lectures that bore and exercises on exercises that demean.

We know: math is often not liked and it is scary. A few years ago a research conducted with primary school children by Rosetta Zan and Pietro di Martino, of the Mathematics Department of the University of Pisa, showed that at first many children are afraid or even terrified of mathematics: a negative feeling that will tend to accompany them for a long time, if not forever, at school and in life.

And yet mathematics is very important to live well. First of all, because it is useful, as recalled by the president of Invalsi Anna Maria Ajello at the presentation of the 2022 tests, which confirmed that mathematics is the black beast of Del Paesene students: "We need to make it clear especially to girls that this discipline is essential for their safety in adulthood”, For example because it is used to learn a read financial documents and not be exposed to scams.

And besides being useful, math can be beautiful, as the results of a study published last August in the journal Cognition say, according to which even non-mathematicians can see the beauty of a mathematical reasoning just as they do that of a painting or a Schubert sonata.

A school-family alliance to win the "black beast"

Defeating the black beast, therefore, is more important than ever and we at and Focus Scuola think that to do so we need a close alliance between school and family: a pact that helps children if not to love mathematics - "and on the other hand there is the fact that not everyone must necessarily love it" says Di Martino - at least not to hate it and not to be afraid of it.

Read also: The report cards are coming, here's how to behave

How the family can help children with math

On the family front, the first thing to do is to help parents clearing away the idea that math skills are inherited and unavoidable.

"Phrases like 'my son got it from me, that I never understood anything' or 'the women in my family have always done badly in mathematics' are to be avoided because they become self-fulfilling" recommends Di Martino, who has been involved in teaching for years of mathematics and attitudes towards this subject. "Anyone who has been told a thousand times that he took from his mother, that he did not understand math, will not even try".

No judgments on the person

Similarly, however, it is from avoid the association between good results in mathematics and higher intelligence. “Think about it: if a child gets a good grade in history, the parents tell it to the grandparents saying that he 'got a good grade in history'. If he got a good grade in mathematics, they tell it by saying that 'he is a genius'. But doing this means replace a comment on the performance with a judgment on the person, which in the long run can be heavy ". The risk is that in the face of the first difficulty, the child who has always felt called a "genius" will encounter one strong emotional crisis. “It can happen when you get to high school, for example, where there is some extra difficulty. Or even at university, among those enrolled in mathematics themselves ".

Read also: Labels for children, yes or no?

Curiosity first of all!

For parents who ask how to concretely help their children with mathematics, Di Martino simply recommends encourage them to be curious (in all fields), a ask questions (without getting tired if they seem naïve) and to propose - arguing - their answers, without providing ready-made ones: an excellent training ground for mathematical reasoning.

Less exercises, more problems

On the school front, however, Di Martino emphasizes with emphasis that the main problem lies in the fact that little is done of "real" mathematics. “The object of mathematics are problems, which by definition require creative solutions and contemplate the possibility of error, while at school those who are actually exercises are called 'problems', which are tools for solving problems and should not become the aim of the educational proposal ”. The expert therefore invites you to bring more problems and fewer exercises to class.

How to create a "math-friendly" environment in the classroom

Other simple tips for creating a positive climate around mathematics teaching come from the American physicist and mathematician Raj Shah, co-founder of the Global Math Project. For example:

  1. start each lesson with something he is capable of stimulate students' curiosity, such as a question about a "controversial" topic (is Zero an even or an odd number?) or the possibility that the students themselves are asking a starting question.
  2. promote determination and persistence, helping the pupils to familiarize themselves with a certain sense of unease because not everything is coming as quickly as they expect, and leaving the necessary time to "bang their heads".
  3. foster a dynamic mental attitude, based on the belief that mathematical skills are not fixed and immutable but can improve. Of course with a little bit of effort.

(Article published in October 2022 in the magazine Focus Scuola for teachers)

Meaning of Focus School

Focus Scuola is the magazine aimed at teachers of primary and lower secondary schools.Available only by subscription.

  • mathematics
  • children at school
  • 6-14 children years
add a comment of Children and fear of mathematics: tips for parents and teachers to overcome it
Comment sent successfully! We will review it in the next few hours.