How can we help a child with a kindled math alarm? How can we prevent this from happening in the first place?
In his classic, The Myth of Laziness, Mel Levine made the critical point that when a young child gives up on arithmetic, it's a sign, not that he is not trying hard enough, but rather that he is trying too hard and expending too much energy. The child with a numerical processing deficit is just such a case. But what exactly does it mean, in physiological terms, to say that such a child is “working too hard”?
There is some research that bears out the idea that a highly challenging mental task will burn extra amounts of glucose. But the findings have been mixed. While the brain consumes an inordinate amount of glucose relative to its size, it appears that the amount of additional glucose consumed when working on a hard problem barely registers. Except when one especially pertinent factor is involved—and that factor is stress.
The more stressful a task, the more glucose is consumed. A child with poor numerical processing finds math stressful in the same way that a child with poor balance finds learning how to ride a bike stressful. In the case of math, we are dealing with a working memory issue but not simply a working memory issue. Anxiety introduces a further dimension into the mix, quite apart from the processing bandwidth consumed by intrusive thoughts: viz., the physiological cost of hyperarousal.
Hyperarousal is the quintessential "Red Brain" phenomenon. Engaging in a difficult cognitive task when not particularly stressed (e.g., playing Minecraft) does not affect blood glucose. Add in hyperarousal, however, (as in writing the SATs) and glucose drops sharply, not because of an added “cognitive load,” but because the anxiety produced by the task elicits a limbic response (e.g., elevated heart rate and breathing).
This point is pivotal to understanding what is meant by cognitive stress. When a student with a numerical processing problem tries to learn arithmetic, he tenses up because of the difficulty that he’s having. And now other domains of stress are layered on top (e.g., emotional, social); for nothing can be more stressful than to struggle to understand something that others around you have already grasped. The student becomes more vulnerable to HMA as he lags behind the other students or fails to meet the teacher’s, or his own, expectations.
In short, the reason why kids with a numerical processing deficit find daily math lessons “a source of huge anxiety is because they must exert tremendous effort to understand what is obvious to their classmates” (Rubenstein & Tannock 2010). The key here is that we think of math as a purely mental exercise (whatever that means), but working on a math problem is a full-body phenomenon (Porges 2011). We have adapted a primitive survival mechanism—one that involves tensing our muscles while hyperfocussing—to the modern task of learning math and this “whole-body” phenomenon is far more expensive for a child with numerical cognitive deficits who stays tensed longer than a student for whom math is easy.
The former finds math a debilitating negative stress while for the latter it’s an invigorating positive stress. But that fact still leaves us with two major questions:
Just why is it that any child, and not just those with a numerical processing deficit, should come to dread their daily math class?
Here is where Self-Reg comes in, telling us not just why this is happening, but what we can do about it. The key lies in “limbic braking,” which occurs when glucose levels in the bloodstream dip below a certain level [Why is my Child so Mentally Lazy?]. This causes a shift from "Blue Brain" processes (those involved in learning math) to "Red Brain" (those needed for dealing with an emergency). What may appear to be oppositional behavior (e.g., the child refusing to continue) is, in fact, a glaring sign that his brakes have kicked in.
The problem is that a child can be pushed to override his limbic brakes [When to Push a Child]. We accomplish this by shouting, scowling, threatening, shaming. Yet the experience is extremely unpleasant and remembered. The hippocampus keeps a careful record of aversive experiences in which there was no compensating payoff (i.e., without such a desirable reward that this triggers a surge of dopamine sufficient to overpower the negative association). And thereafter, the mere cues associated with that experience are enough to trigger a fight-or-flight response.
Our Self-Reg questions come down to:
Why are we pushing so many children to override their limbic brakes in math without realizing that we are doing so? How can we prevent a kindled “math alarm”?
A large part of the problem here is how the self-control paradigm continues to shape our thinking when it comes to teaching math. We automatically assume that a child lagging behind peers for whom arithmetic comes easily needs to be pushed to make a greater effort. And the greater the societal angst around math, the more likely that this ancient mindset takes hold. When it does, we become mind-blind: i.e., fail to read the signs that a child is approaching the point where the limbic brakes set in (e.g., in pupil dilation, changes in prosody, idiosyncratic “tells”). We misread resistance as disobedience and see anxiety as non-compliance.
If we automatically assume that the child who is lagging is not trying hard enough, our response is tinged with anger and frustration. If not explicitly conveyed, our feelings “leak out” in our affect signals (eyes, facial expression, the tone of voice); and if the child “complies,” it is done out of fear, not “enhanced motivation.”
Fear provides the necessary burst of energy (epinephrine) needed to override limbic braking. The problem, then, is if we persist in scaring or coercing when we should be soothing and restoring. And asking ourselves: Why is this child, who is so active and interested in other school subjects, having such a hard time in math? Does this child have a problem in numerical processing, which is why he might need more Interbrain support than a child without such a deficit?
If you suspect this problem may apply to your child, there are a number of things you can do to reduce the cognitive stress. Look at ways to promote the roots of numerical processing: e.g., with movement and visualization exercises, board, card, or number games. Slow down the tempo of the lessons and scaffold the advances. Use manipulatives to help make abstract ideas more manageable and concrete examples to make them more meaningful. Experiment with the programs and apps that have been developed to help with this challenge or the storybooks that have been devised to help kids master math concepts. Tap into other “modalities” where your child is a strong learner (e.g., visual).
But one of the major lessons that Self-Reg teaches us is that we must always be careful to look at all five of the stress domains, even though one domain, in particular, stands out. The greater the child’s overall stress-load, the deeper he or she goes into a state of low-energy and high-tension. In this condition, anxiety mounts, social and self-perception become negative, mind-reading is attenuated, motivation withers, mood sours, sustained concentration is intolerable, and core processing deficits become even more pronounced.
So we need to practice all five steps of Self-Reg, in addition to our efforts to reduce the child’s cognitive stress. We most definitely need to address the child’s cognitive stress, in addition to all the measures taken to reduce his other stresses. Most important of all is to ensure that, whatever you do, your child feels safe and supported throughout. Just as you did when you were teaching him how to ride a bike.
The first step, and maybe the critical step, is to reframe the difficulty your child is having: to recognize that his “failure” is nothing of the sort. To see his problems as due to wilfulness or mental laziness would warrant a Dr. McCoy-like rebuke. But none of us wants to be bound by primitive views about learning. Especially now that we are finally beginning to understand why children have these sorts of difficulties and what we can do to help them go boldly where others have gone before.