Our Preschool Studio

Dealing with Math anxiety as a parent

Most of my schooling and adult life has been plagued by Math anxiety.  It came to a head when I had to sit for the GRE exams, a requirement I needed to fulfil if I wanted to apply to graduate schools in USA. My husband, who was my boyfriend then and in Engineering school, coached me through the Mathematics part of the GRE.  It was not fun – we had shouting matches daily.  It went like this:

Him: You can do it!

Me: No, I can’t. I’m bad at math. This doesn’t make sense.

Him: You just have to try!

Me: I tried, and I can’t!  Math is stupid.

Well..you get the picture.

When all was said and done, I managed to get a decent Math score for my GRE.  I was shocked.  By all accounts and estimations of my Math abilities, I should have failed.  I was just glad to get that over and done with and hopefully never have to encounter Math (in the academic sense) EVER again.

Then I had kids and I realised gosh, I need to confront Math again.  I did not want to pass on my Math anxieties.  I didn’t want them to grow up thinking Math is hard and that Math sucks.  I was also fortunate that around the time I discovered that I had Math anxiety, it coincided with me having deep conversations with friends who studied Math at a philosophical level.  They shared with me that my problem was really common and easily fixed.  I also went on to read many, many books and research about Math and the more I knew about how humans learn Math, and especially how children have an instinct for Math, the less Math-anxious I got.

I’m 33 and I am a recovering Math-avoider.  In fact, I think I’ve started to see how Math is *gasp* enjoyable.

Now if you are a parent and you have similar anxieties about Math, what can you do?

First and foremost, you have to change your attitude toward Math.  Its not that Math sucks, its just never been introduced to you in a way that’s connected to you deeply. Actually you’ve been doing Math all your life, since infancy.  And probably really good at it. But along the way, nobody taught you to bridge the Math that you’ve always been doing unconsciously to the abstract Mathematical knowledge we studied academically in school. So you lost confidence in your Math abilities.  But its there!

Know that your children are already budding Mathematicians doing Maths in creative ways everyday. You just don’t see it.  When they are walking to the playground, playing with blocks, water, sand, or helping you set the table, and cleaning up their toys, they are actively engaging with Maths. The hard part comes when we need to help them translate those playful and real ways they do Maths, to the formal ways Math is taught in schools.


Lucia, Liora and Lysbeth at 1.5 years old figuring out how to fit their animal figurines into paint cup: a playful exercise in volume measurement that they discovered while tinkering with their big sister’s painting supplies 

However, make no mistake that there is absolutely no rush to teach Mathematical operations, symbols and notations early.  Instead, what is more helpful is to support their everyday Mathematical play and discoveries. Introduce Mathematical language in everyday mundane activities to help young children familiarise and be comfortable with Mathematic-speak.  In her book 30 Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain, Dana Suskin explained over and over again the straight-forward interaction between how often a parent uses Mathematical language to the child’s academic success in Math later on.  The more Math-related words and concepts a young child is exposed to, the better grasp they have at abstract and higher level Maths later on.  I mean this is entirely unsurprising simply because when you are at ease around a particular subject, you have less of a learning curve compared to someone who has to start from scratch.

Introduce Mathematical games during unstructured play-time to deepen and widen their Mathematical thinking. You can read about all the kinds of play-based Math activities you can do with your toddler and preschooler from Elaine Bennett’s book The Building Blocks of Early Maths. The suggestions she gives provides a general idea about how Math is really everywhere and as parents, we need to help children translate the informal ways they understand Math into more formal ways, as they would later learn in school.  This connection tends to get skipped over and is typically the reason for the lack of Math-confidence in so many school-going children.

We also need to observe our children sensitively: what interests them? What is fun for them? What are they currently obsessed with? And use these points of interests to cultivate their innate Math abilities.  Its virtually impossible to develop deep and creative Mathematical thinking in toddlers and preschoolers without an interesting or exciting context that would draw a child in.  This is the reason flashcards, worksheets, and assessment books are not the best tools to nurture a young child’s Mathematical development.  Linda Pound explains this best in her book, Supporting Mathematical Development in the Early Years

The conventional receptive class curriculum, with its emphasis on worksheets and colouring activities, frequently fails to tap into knowledge and understanding that most young children already have. Their understanding of the language of measurement, position in space, selecting criteria for sorting, exploring, building and matching with shapes is often good. They show informal skills in number, such as counting, adding and subtracting, but are not usually able to represent their thinking in any formal way.

Pressures to accelerate children into the use of conventional notations and symbols may, in the short term, result in apparently rapid progress in, for example, doing simple sums but will not lead to higher later achievement.

Schools can train children to become skillful operators, to perform well in the short term but this does not develop the network of connections, symbolic representations and meanings which extends the power of thinking and hypothesizing.

Play, however, is the best way to connect to toddlers, preschoolers and very young school-going children.  As Mari Guha writes, “We do not know what the knowledge is, and the skills are, that the children of today will most need in the future. Flexibility, confidence and the ability to think for oneself – these are the attributes one hopes will not let them down. [Since] play is conducive to the development of these, we had better have it in school.”

At the end of the day, recognise that Mathematics is a type of language and it is an important one if we wish to function successfully in our society.  We emphasise so heavily on kids obtaining literacy in English and their mother tongue, but we don’t have equal emphasis on obtaining similar levels of literacy in Mathematics.  The earlier we inculcate, encourage and speak ‘Math’ and make it visible to our young children that its really part of our everyday lives, the more confident and easier it would be for them to recognise and make the transition to the abstract Math that they will eventually learn in school.  The hope is not that they are going to the next Math geniuses or win Nobel prizes in Physics (though for girls, there have been ample research to show that Math confidence directly correlates to increased motivation to study and join STEM professions) but to be comfortable and confident in a language that’s been around for centuries and part and parcel of our human culture.

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