Maybe this Halloween Math Doesn’t Have to be so Scary…

The other day I was watching a scary movie and shouted, “run!” at the TV as I saw one child after another stand frozen, shaking and sweating with terror as they watched Pennywise’s creepy face rush toward them as they stood helpless. This morning I was working with a student who told me about a math test she had “freaked out” about the day before. I was struck by what she described as the exact same symptoms I had seen on the children in a Stephen King film… shaking, sweating, feeling frozen and helpless, and the shameful knowledge that if she were to confess her terror to others, they wouldn’t understand. How is that some numbers on a piece of paper equate to the same feelings one might have when being chased down by a terrifying child-hungry clown?

For some people math is a language that not only makes sense, but unlocks an understanding of the world around them and presents unique challenges and solutions. For MANY others it is a subject that they can never quite grasp and has made them feel less than since the beginning of their education. By age 16, a student could have struggled with the same subject for over a decade, but is expected to enter a new school year and math class with a good attitude, expecting to succeed. Patterns of repeated perceived failure lead to what Rick Lavoie in The Motivation Breakthrough refers to as “Learned Helplessness”. Learned Helplessness is, essentially, a term for giving up before trying something that a person has repeatedly failed at in the past. While learned helplessness is looked down upon as laziness in our society, it is actually an effective form of self protection: If I tried out for the volleyball team multiple times (which I did) and didn’t make the team each time (which I didn’t), I would eventually find a different sport (turns out running takes very little coordination). When this happened, nobody called me a quitter, or told me I would never go to college - it made sense that I stopped doing something I was not inherently good at. However, when a student receives feedback that they are bad at math, and then stops trying to get better at math, their future opportunities are negatively affected, their self esteem suffers, and they receive many external consequences.

This is all to say that my student had good reason to freak out in her car before her math test - she had not understood a subject for over a decade, lacked tools to improve in it, and knew her future depended on her being successful at it… faced with that trifecta, you might just choose to face the weird clown.

So, what’s the solution to the math scaries? Like most solutions, it’s multi-faceted:

  1. Identify how math makes you feel. Write down those feelings. Recognize that they are valid, and try to let go of shame around them.

  2. Take an assessment to determine if you are struggling with current math curriculum because there are gaps in your understanding of prior math curriculum… for instance Algebra 2 might be tough if you missed a lot of school while learning Pre-Algebra.

  3. Talk to your math teacher about your struggles and see if they can help you directly, or provide recommendations. Teachers (other than few exceptions) REALLY want you to succeed - let them help you be successful.

  4. Find a tutor or course that

    1. Does not shame you for what you do not know, and

    2. Goes at the pace you need to deeply understand the material.

  5. Understand that you can have a new experience with math, but it might take time and effort, and not look exactly how you envision it (like learning all of Geometry in one epic all-nighter, for instance).

For help with math (or any subjects you rather spend the night in a haunted house than do homework for), check out some of our favorite private tutoring companies:

  1. TutorCorps:

  2. Teach Play Learn:

  3. Compass Education Group:

MathRebecca Rehfeld