The Roots of Math Anxiety

It’s a vicious cycle. When faced with a number problem you are gripped by anxiety or panic. Clearly, these feelings are no good so you go out of your way to avoid number problems as much as possible. This leads to your becoming less and less “good at math” and the feelings of anxiety increase. Round and round you go until your math anxiety has become a fact of life for you.

math anxiety dybuster blog

Research is currently delving into possible causes of and intervention for math anxiety. One article from youcubed at Stanford University reports that timed tests may be responsible for math anxiety in some cases. Other research at the University of Chicago conducted by psychologist Sian Beilock found that math-anxious parents can pass on this anxiety to their children. A first-person account from a New York Times reporter confirmed this, and mentioned as well the enormous effect of teachers can have on a student’s math anxiety. Still, other factors such as stereotype threat can severely and adversely affect students’ performance on math exams. And of course, math learning disabilities such as dyscalculia can result in a child feeling intense anxiety when asked to deal with numbers.

What possibilities exist for breaking out of the cycle of anxiety-avoidance-poor performance? A recent experiment at Stanford University found that one-on-one tutoring alleviated math anxiety in students by using techniques based on exposure therapy. Students faced their fears of math in a supportive environment and gradually those fears lessened. Breathing techniques for older students at university have also been found to be effective. In the case of a learning disability then early intervention can be key in lessening anxiety caused by numbers.

Are you familiar with math anxiety? Can you trace the anxiety to specific causes? What’s your story?

Dybuster: The Beginning

It began with a father trying to help his son. Adrian is dyslexic, and despite trying each day to improve his spelling and reading, he never got through a writing exercise without making multiple errors.

“It broke my heart,” says Adrian’s father, Markus Gross. “He was trying his best under enormous psychological strain.”

Adrian's corrected homework.

Adrian’s homework with corrections.

That strain is familiar to the millions of children and adults with dyslexia, a learning disability that involves chronic difficulty with reading and writing. Markus and Adrian tried therapy after therapy – some of them very costly – but none resulted in any lasting improvement.

Over time Adrian even became disillusioned with school as a whole because he had to read and write for almost every subject. He started to lose motivation for learning altogether.

“As parents,” Markus mentions, “we put high pressure on ourselves, too, because we were afraid of the limitations on Adrian’s life choices due to his dyslexia. That put even more pressure on him.”

It was at this point that Markus decided to come up with an approach that would fit Adrian’s strengths. Adrian could remember how to spell words if he associated a word with something more concrete and geometric.

Markus Gross is head of the Institute of Computational Science and the Computer Graphics Laboratory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich. He began working on a computer program that associated letters with colours, sounds, and shapes. The exercises were sorted into learning games so that the program would be as fun to work with as possible.

The software, built with Adrian’s feedback, finally helped Markus’s son to make lasting improvement in spelling and reading. This success raised the question: could the program help other children as well? As the program was tailored to Adrian’s needs, Markus was not sure it would be applicable to other forms of dyslexia.

Case studies were performed at the University of Zürich and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. The results were clear: the software could be used to generally aid children with dyslexia. Overall, the children involved in the studies improved their reading and spelling skills drastically after only a few months of working with the program.

The program was dubbed Orthograph, now distributed by the company Dybuster, formed by the researchers, developers, and teachers behind Orthograph’s creation. The software is currently used by thousands of children in Swiss schools, and by others worldwide.

“It is very rewarding,” Markus Gross says, “to see how this private project spread so widely and allows us to help so many children – and their parents – cope with the difficulties that my son and myself experienced.”

Searching for Words: What to Call Dyslexia

I want the world to know that I don’t like the word disability, it herts my feelings. I can do everything.”

That charming and inspiring quote is from Leia, a dyslexic 10 year old who authored this guest post on Learning Ally’s blog. Leia speaks her mind about the world’s views on dyslexia and the term “disability” in particular.

But click over to Learning Ally’s main page and that term is right there in the top left hand corner: “Bringing parents and teachers together to help students with learning disabilities like dyslexia succeed.

We’re not criticizing Learning Ally here. In fact, we have also used the term “disability” when writing about dyslexia, both on the blog and on the Dybuster website. So we’d like to open up a dialogue. How important are the words we use to refer to dyslexia?

Teacher and student, Dybuster International

In the classroom. Photo: Dybuster International.

We’ve experienced for ourselves just how paramount it can be to stay sensitive to people’s feelings on this topic. In a Facebook post last week we asked the question, “How many children suffer from dyslexia in the United States?”

A reader commented that “suffer” might be the wrong word and suggested “struggle with” as a better reflection of what dyslexia entails. We thought she had a point, even though a similar post that used the same wording was actually shared and liked among other readers.

Going back to Leia’s feelings on the word “disability”, what alternatives for this exist? Well, the website Friends of Quinn refers to learning “differences”, while LDonline runs the whole gamut from disabilities, to disorders, to differences. Note that not all of those terms are used to apply to dyslexia. British professor Julian Elliot sparked a certain amount of controversy by suggesting the elimination of the very term “dyslexia”.

Clearly, thoughts and opinions vary on this topic, so that’s why we’d like to open the question up to readers. How do you feel about the word “disability”? In which direction would you point society on this search for the right words?

Justin on the job. Smile! Justin is Dybuster’s market research analyst and dyslexic.

Justin on the job. Smile! Justin is Dybuster’s market research analyst and is dyslexic.

We started our search right here at Dybuster and asked Justin, our market research analyst, what he thought. Justin is dyslexic and his thoughts mirrored Leia’s:

Dyslexia is not a disability, far from it, it’s a different point of view. Just like you have brown hair and I have blond hair, it’s a different set-up in DNA… Living with dyslexia gives you a different perspective on situations.”

Are you or your child dyslexic? We’d really like to know what you think about this; please leave a comment below for us and other readers!

What is it like to have Dyscalculia?

Dyscalculia affects around 5% of children, a smaller proportion than those affected by dyslexia (the rate of occurrence for dyslexia in the United States is approximately 15%). This has resulted in dyscalculia remaining relatively unknown; many people are not even familiar with the term.

What effect could this have on children with dyscalculia? Imagine struggling every day at school with number problems that your peers master far more quickly than you do. Your teacher is beginning to lose patience with you and your parents think you are just not trying hard enough. They don´t understand that you are trying hard every day, but even basic arithmetic concepts make no sense to you. You are called lazy or stupid or both.

This is the reality for many students with dyscalculia. With awareness of this learning disability still low, children may not be diagnosed as dyscalculic and not receive intervention that could help them succeed in the classroom.

Dybuster blog, classroom photo

To get a sense of what math and numbers are like for a child with dyscalculia, try Understood.org´s online tool Through Your Child´s Eyes. Select “math issues” and grade level and then experience some of the difficulties dyscalculics struggle through when presented with numbers. The tool also simulates reading and attention issues, useful for anyone with an interest in dyslexia and other learning disabilities.

Click here to test out the learning issues simulator (external link).

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