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  • Writer's pictureRobert Ahdoot

Math Aversion – It can be contagious

Updated: Aug 3, 2022

Robert Ahdoot discusses Math Anxiety on The Scalar Learning Podcast
Beware: Math Aversion can be contagious unless you take steps to avoid passing it to kids.

This original post was featured on Homeschool Buyer's Co-op.

With increased precautions regarding the contagiousness of the new coronavirus, the public is in the midst of a crash-course on how to prevent transferring the disease from one person to another. And as schools across the country go virtual, thousands of families are now thrust into another crash course: schooling their children at home.

As this happens, another disease can pass from parents to their kids. That disease is what I call, “Math Aversion.” Math Aversion is the condition whereby someone loathes and rejects participating in anything math related, no matter what the situation, or what level of math complexity. They have no curiosity, patience, resolve, or positivity when it comes to any math scenario. For generations leading up to now, and maybe even more now in this new homebound climate, parents who suffer from this affliction are unknowingly infecting their own kids with it.

When Math Aversion settles into our lives, it’s very difficult to cure. The reason for this is that when our bodies experience panic or fear, the parts of our brain that handle numerical processing shut down. This is clinically known as Math Anxiety. For a comprehensive look at this phenomenon, I partnered with Homeschool Buyer’s Co-op to present a comprehensive webinar on it, which you can view for free here.

It makes sense that someone who has had negative experiences with math would take active steps to avoid it over time. If that same person has children of their own, then of course they wouldn’t want to pass that aversion on. So here are five ideas to bolster Math Aversion immunity for when our kids are around us.

1.) Be mindful of our utterances.

In the presence of our kids, we must be highly mindful of little utterances that escape our lips. You may be at the checkout line at the grocery store, and some mini-math dilemma crops up, to which you mutter in jest, “Ugh… numbers.” Or some math situation rears its head at home, to which you jokingly say to your spouse, “Honey, math is your department.” These wisecracks have a devastating effect on impressionable kids. Our children will associate anything math related with negativity, for no reason other than our little quips, even seemingly benign ones spoken under our breath.

2.) Model productive learning behavior

Parents who are math averse don’t realize how effective they can be as teachers. By simply modeling ideal learning behavior in the presence of kids, we can teach them best practices for when the going gets tough. For example, suppose the averse parent, who normally does not calculate the tip at the restaurant, announces that he/she wants to try this time. The spouse or the kids could help that parent with the process of arriving to that amount. Along the way, the math-averse parent may struggle and become confused, but if he/she stays calm and says with a good attitude, “ok wait, wait, back up… you lost me at ‘percent’, could you say that again?” Or, “ok I understand how you got the 8, what did you say after that?”

Remember, the answer to a problem is way less important than the process of arriving to that answer. Problems and solutions constantly come and go throughout life. Yet the process we employ to solve those problems is the connecting thread. Model productive problem solving in the presence of your kids, so that they may see how it’s done best.

3.) Remember the supreme value and effect of FUN

“That is the way to learn the most, when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that time passes.”

–Albert Einstein’s advice to his 11-year-old son, in a letter he wrote in 1915

Against my wife’s better judgement, who correctly believes that it kicks up too much carpet dust, my daughters and I love to partake in the following game. They sit on a blanket and I quickly drag them from room to room, which both gives them belly laughs and gives me a full body workout. I deeply believe in constantly seeking out fun learning moments, and this game certainly presents itself as one of them.

Because I tire out, I promise them ten rounds of the game. So before each round, I challenge them (in a fun and lively tone) “How many done?” They answer, then, “How many left?” For them to smoothly bounce from 0-10 to 1-9 to 2-8 and so on is a phenomenal multi-age-appropriate math exercise. The best part about it is that they’re in tears from laughing through their answers, not realizing that I’m “math ninja-ing” them all the while.

Find the game. Find the fun. Then informally weave in numbers and watch learning flourish. You may even notice how your own level of Math Aversion may diminish.

4.) Be candid with your story, when age appropriate

If you’ve had a troubling math experience in your life, perhaps involving a childhood teacher you had, sharing the story in a way/time you deem appropriate can be a profound experience, both for you and for your child. Imagine the ability to share, “I remember always loving math, and being successful in my classes. But in 8th grade, Mr. So-and-So changed that for me. He would make us feel bad for getting answers wrong, and I remember him singling me out in class several times. I never recovered from that year, and I wish that someone reminded me, whenever I needed to be reminded, that I was good at math and could easily love it again.”

Such candor may not be for everyone, which is fine. If you choose to share your story, you can turn your harrowing experience into a chance to bond. Plus, the moment embodies wonderful lessons on empathy and vulnerability.

5.) Remember, Math Aversion isn’t an aversion to math itself. It’s an aversion to feeling bad about ourselves.

For anyone reading this who really believes that they don’t like math, I have an exercise for you. Please be honest with yourself, and you may achieve some new perspective today. So my question is, what’s 5 + 5? You probably know the answer is 10. Now ask yourself, was that awful, horrendous, horrifying? Do you hate that the answer is 10? My feeling is that you’re totally ok with this problem. And yet, it’s math, right?

My point is that somewhere between 5 + 5 and where you are now, something went off the rails. So math itself isn’t inherently the problem. Rather, it’s the feeling we get when we hit the wall in our abilities. It turns out that some individuals, namely small kids, really struggle with 5 + 5. Should we accept that they just aren’t good at math, especially if they cry and reject the problem when we insist they keep trying it?

Try to reflect on whether there was a moment in your past where things went awry in your math education. If you put yourself back in that moment, what would you say and do differently then, knowing what you know now? You’d probably position yourself to increase your chances of success, either by self-advocating to obtain help, or by rejecting unwarranted behavior of teachers (or parents) in your midst who are part of the problem.

For the well-being of your kids, if you think it would help, I only ask that you take some time to reflect upon the pain you went through, and understand it with increased rationale. Any healing you can conjure along your math journey will set you up to help your children that much more.

Thank you for considering my ideas. I’m available if you’d like to reach out, my contact is below.



ps – Here's a resource to help you teach math concepts through visual examples and pair them with verbal instructions for those that are partially verbal or non-verbal. Make the homeschooling of teaching math fun by playing games with flashcards, apps, or an online curriculum."

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