Photo by Julien Laurent on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Julien Laurent on Unsplash

Children are going into fight-or-flight at the mere thought of doing math. Self-Reg helps us to understand why this is happening and what we might do about it.

An alarmingly large number of early learners have come to abhor math by Grade 3: they have developed what is referred to as “High Math Anxiety” (HMA).

The big problem is that HMA fuels itself. Comprehension and performance are seriously impacted, which leads to avoidance, which leads to falling further behind, which leads to more anxiety and worse comprehension and performance. And so on.

Psychologists have been looking closely at the sources of HMA and have identified some of the major emotional, social and prosocial stresses that these kids are dealing with: e.g., poor self-esteem and self-confidence, negative early math experiences, gender and racial stereotypes, the effect on students of teacher or parental anxiety. But what would be really helpful is if we had some sort of “funduscope” to let us peer inside the brains of HMA children [Why does my Child Hate Math, Part 1 of 3]. Or maybe that future is already here.

Of all the discoveries that cognitive neuroscientists working in this area have made, the most astonishing is that, when presented with a problem in arithmetic, children 7-9 diagnosed with HMA display hyperactivity in the right amygdala and anterior hippocampus and hypoactivity in the intraparietal sulcus, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (Young, Yu & Menon 2012).

This obscure bit of “brain talk” amounts to a remarkable discovery: the sort of thing that should make all of us shake our heads in disbelief. What these findings are telling us is that, in a child with HMA, the “higher” prefrontal systems in the brain that are essential for learning math go on standby, while the “lower” limbic systems in the brain designed to deal with emergencies are on high alert (Shaozheng et al. 2009). In other words, these children are going into fight-or-flight.

But how on earth could arithmetic be seen as a threat?

Why would the limbic system respond to learning the rules of addition and subtraction in the same way that it responds to a menacing stranger? Is this response part of a more generalized pattern of heightened anxiety? The research says otherwise: that is, that HMA can be quite specific to math. So there has to be another, a deeper reason why this is happening to so many young children at the outset of their travels through the world of math.

The root of the problem is that math is a cognitive stress.

Indeed, the paradigm example of a cognitive stress for kids (just as remembering where you put your keys is for adults).  And it is far more stressful for some kids than others. So stressful that the mere thought of it triggers their limbic alarm.

As we saw in part 1, what’s involved in learning the “basics” is a developmental leap: not just recognizing arithmetical patterns, but mastering a new type of abstract thinking. And western educators have intuitively known this fact about math for well over a thousand years, if not considerably longer (Friesen 2010). Only recently, however, have we begun to understand some of the reasons why this should be the case.

The big reason is that math makes significant demands on working memory and much more for some children than for others. This is an important point; for common amongst children with HMA are deficits in number sense, counting, subitizing, and comparing the magnitude of two numbers. And these deficits in “mathematical cognition”—in how the brain processes numerical information—can be a powerful drain on working memory.

In a way, this is something that every parent or teacher trying to teach a child having trouble already knows intuitively. The same is true for the difficulty some kids have learning how to ride a bike. But parents don’t need to learn about the vestibular, proprioceptive and kinesthetic systems to know when they need to keep the training wheels on a little longer lest their child bolt at the mere thought of getting on a bike. So why should we treat math any differently?

The answer is: because we don’t look at learning how to ride a bike through a Self-Control lens. On the contrary, we do everything we can to help our child relax and feel secure—by holding on to their seat, murmuring gentle words of encouragement, smiling a lot. We don’t see their wobbling as a sign of weakness or due to a lack of serious effort. Anything but. And it’s not a competition with all the other kids learning how to ride their bikes; invariably parent and child are alone. And then there’s math.

As unique as math might be in terms of how the brain processes this kind of information, it is exactly the same as all of the many other challenges that children must deal with: the more stress involved, the more they will avoid what has become a powerfully aversive experience.

The solution, as we will see in the final part of this series, is not to “force” them to persist but rather, to reduce the stresses so that they can not only master the basics but thoroughly enjoy the experience. And that, of course, is where Self-Reg comes in.

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Why Does My Child Hate Math?

Part 3: What can I do about it?

Why Does My Child Hate Math?

Part 2 of 3: Is this truly a matter of “hatred”?

Why Does My Child Hate Math?

Part 1 of 3: The “giant leap”