It's not unusual for a child to struggle with math during their early school years. As a child's brain develops, they start to learn how to solve logic problems and apply analytical reasoning – a development that is in part nurtured through their ability to solve mathematical problems. Their brains want to find they answer – their brains know that an answer is there – but while they're starting to make those connections, solving math problems can provide considerable stress and anxiety.
This is especially true when taking a math test, because there is the added pressure of knowing that the test itself is gauging whether or not they have been successful at learning. That pressure can cause a lot of anxiety, and it's not uncommon for the child taking the test to feel these effects, including:
- Cloudy Mind – Anxiety has a tendency to reduce focus and clarity. This can be troublesome when the child is trying to figure out complex math problems, and that can lead to more anxiety.
- Physical Stress – Math anxiety during a test can also cause physical discomfort. Children that are attempting to sit and focus on solving a problem often find this discomfort to be overwhelming, and may prevent them from putting all of their efforts on the test.
- Time Perception – Scientists are mixed on whether or not anxiety alters the perception of time. But subjectively, many people report that time can feel like it's passing too slowly or too quickly, and both can affect the student's ability to complete the test.
- Self-Doubt – You need confidence to solve math problems. Doubt yourself, and it becomes much harder to find the right answer, because you'll worry that another answer is out there. Anxiety is often a fuel for self doubt.
Anxiety can also cause sweating, nervous behaviors, and ticks. All of these make it harder and harder to succeed on a math test.
What Can Be Done?
Math anxiety is a tricky thing to conquer, because unlike other forms of anxiety, you can't necessary teach someone to completely avoid anxiety if they are struggling to solve a problem. Some level of anxiety is natural, and some people believe that overconfidence (ie, no anxiety) may cause issues as well.
Clearly the best way to reduce that anxiety is studying, because the more the student is used to solving a problem, the less intimidating the problem becomes. However, there are strategies that teachers and parents can implement to reduce math test anxiety even further, including:
- Create a Personal Test Taking Strategy
What should the student do when they don't know a question? Most kids go into a test with no strategy, and when they start to struggle with a problem or worry about an answer, they have no idea what to do next. Teach children a strategy for test taking, such as "if you don't know a problem or you're worried about your answer, immediately move on to the next question and come back to it later." Each child can use their own strategy, but these strategies will help ensure they don't feel lost when they start to struggle.
- Teach a Personal Relaxation Technique
It's much harder to get children to perform the same relaxation strategies many adults use, like deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation. But you can help the child find some technique that reduces their stress. As soon as they start to feel themselves getting frustrated, have them stop and perform an activity that helps them feel better, such as tapping their finger against the table or singing a song they like to themselves. These little things won't decrease the pressure completely, but they'll help stop it from becoming overwhelming.
- Make Extra Credit Available
Not every student is going to be able to solve every problem, and if they simply don't know an answer, anxiety is to be expected. What will help is reducing the pressure of the test itself. Let the students know there are extra credit assignments available should they struggle on the test, so that the test isn't the only way they can receive a good grade. The assignments should be difficult (so that students don't want to do them), and certainly shouldn't make up for an entire test, but they will at least relieve some of the pressure the students feel about the test itself, and hopefully allow them to focus more on the questions.
Teaching Children to Succeed On Math Tests
One thing that many teachers, students, and parents don't want to admit is that a lot of test taking anxiety is because the student hasn't been able to prepare as thoroughly as possible. While many children struggle on tests, the degree that they struggle is at least mildly correlated to how well they know the answers. As a result, it's impossible to relieve the anxiety symptoms completely, because most students will experience anxiousness when they get lost answering a question.
But you can take steps to reduce the anxiety to some degree so that the child can have an easier time focusing on the test and ultimately find the right answers. If the child is prepared, and able to at least reduce some of their stress in order to focus on the exam itself, they should be able to answer the questions easier and ultimately experience an additional decrease in anxiety naturally.