The Anti-Anxiety Curriculum: Combating Math Anxiety in the Classroom

By Geist, Eugene | Journal of Instructional Psychology, March 2010 | Go to article overview

The Anti-Anxiety Curriculum: Combating Math Anxiety in the Classroom


Geist, Eugene, Journal of Instructional Psychology


Negative attitudes toward mathematics and what has come to be know as "math anxiety are serious obstacles for children in all levels of schooling today. In this paper, the literature is reviewed and critically assessed in regards to the roots of math anxiety and its especially detrimental effect on children in "at-risk" populations such as low socioeconomic status and females. The effects of teachers' and parents' assumptions, family support, and parents' level of educational attainment will be addressed. The paper also addresses the curricular issues that may lead to math anxiety such as high stress instructional methods and "timed testing".

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A negative attitude toward mathematics is a growing barrier for many children to mathematics (Ashcraft, 2002; Popham, 2008; Rameau & Louime, 2007). For many children, negative attitudes toward mathematics begin early in life, sometimes even before they enter kindergarten (Arnold, Fisher, Doctoroff, & Dobbs, 2002). The child's educational context at home and at school can affect this attitude (Scarpello, 2007). Children from low socioeconomic backgrounds often have parents with less educational background and who often have negative attitudes toward mathematics themselves. Females are also often overlooked or socialized to dislike mathematics (Geist & King 2008; Titu, Gallian, Kane, & Mertz, 2008). While research supports that girls have the similar aptitude for mathematics, they are more susceptible to math anxiety due to their aversion to high stakes testing and social comparison (Haynes, Mullins, & Stein, 2004; Miller & Bichsel, 2004; Miller & Mitchell, 1994). For these groups and many other children, a fear of mathematics or what is commonly known a "math anxiety" it creating a disparity between levels of mathematics achievement. In some cases, the gap in achievement is not brought about by differing levels of potential and ability, but the chances of developing math anxiety or a negative attitude toward mathematics (Ashcraft, 2002; Hopko et al., 2003).

Children begin to construct the foundations for future mathematical concepts during the first few months of life (Geist, 2003a; Geist, 2003b). Before a child can add or even count, they must construct ideas about mathematics that cannot be directly taught. Many of these basic ideas are constructed through interaction with the surrounding environment and the adults in that environment. Ideas that will support formal mathematics later in life such as order and sequence, seriation, comparisons, classifying, addition and other more advanced mathematical skills have their genesis before the age of five. The seemingly simple understanding that numbers have a quantity attached to them is actually a complex relationship that children must construct.

As children enter formal schooling, the constructive process sometimes takes a turn for the worse, especially for girls and minorities (Ma, 2003; Scarpello, 2007; Turner et al., 2002). Studies have shown that at this time in children's learning of mathematics, textbooks take over the process of teaching and the focus on shifts from construction of concepts using children's own mathematical thinking to teacher imposed methods of getting the correct answer (Geist, 2000). Teachers begin to focus on repetition and speed or "timed tests" as important tools for improving mathematical prowess and skill which can undermine the child's natural thinking process and lead to a negative attitude toward mathematics (Popham, 2008; Scarpello, 2007; Thilmany, 2004; Tsui & Mazzocco, 2007).

This overreliance on timed tests and other high stakes approaches to teaching mathematics reinforce the negative attitude toward mathematics that many children have developed in the early years of life (Scarpello, 2007). For those children who had a positive mathematical experience in the early years, this new approach to learning mathematics is often very different from what they are used to (Popham, 2008). …

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