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Math anxiety, dyscalculia, and other reasons math can be hard for kids

Why is math so hard for so many kids? And what can we do about it? 

In this episode, hosts Rachel Bozek and Gretchen Vierstra take a deep dive into math with special education and math teacher Brendan Hodnett. Tune in to learn about dyscalculia, a learning disability in math. Find out how other learning and thinking differences can impact math, too. 

Hear Brendan describe math anxiety, and what strategies can help. You’ll even learn an easy breathing strategy for calming math nerves. Plus, get tips for fun ways to practice math at home. 

Related resources 

Episode transcript

Gretchen: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "In It," a podcast about the ins and outs...

Rachel: ...the ups and downs...

Gretchen: ...of supporting kids who learn and think differently. I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at Understood.

Rachel: And I'm Rachel Bozek, a writer and editor raising two kids with ADHD. Today, we're talking about math.

Gretchen: Did your heart just sink a little when you heard the word "math"?

Rachel: A little bit.

Gretchen: If so, you're not alone. So many of us get stressed out thinking about math. And even if we don't ourselves, many of us are raising kids who do.

Rachel: Maybe you have a kid who has math anxiety, which, yes, is a real thing. Or maybe they have a way of learning or thinking that makes math especially challenging.

Gretchen: Whatever it is that's making math hard for your kid at home or at school, there are tools and strategies that can help. And we are very lucky to have special education and math teacher Brendan Hodnett with us today to talk about some of them.

Rachel: Besides teaching middle school kids, Brendan is also an adjunct professor at Hunter College in New York City, where he offers courses on inclusive ways to teach math.

Gretchen: Brendan, welcome to "In It."

Brendan: Hi. Thank you for having me.

Gretchen: We're so happy to have you here today. So we are going to be getting into some of the learning and thinking differences that might make math challenging. But before we do that, we just kind of want to talk about math and ask more broadly: Why do you think so many people think they are bad at math? Including maybe myself?

Brendan: Yeah, so I see this a lot. I'm currently teaching middle school, and I think by the time students get to middle school, I can attest that most students think they are bad at math or dislike it. And I think that comes from a couple of things. One, math is very different than the other core subjects that they're learning about. Primarily, students are focused in math on either getting it right or getting it wrong. And when you have that fail rate that's a little higher in one class than the other, you might sort of feel like, "I'm not good at this."

You know, even if we're talking about 70% accuracy, that feels like, oh, I'm not good at this when I'm getting, you know, I'm doing so much better in my other classes. Whereas being right 70% of the time, like this is a conversation we have, you know, in middle school pretty regularly. That's actually pretty accurate. So I think this notion of I've got too many wrong today makes me feel like I'm bad at this, right?

Also, where's the in-between? Like was I close to right? Like is that even a conversation that we get to have with our students and our parents with their children? Like, well, were you close? Were you on the right track? Are you making progress? Those kinds of things tend to not happen. So I think that's where we start right now.

Rachel: So here's a question. If you have a kid who is really struggling with math, it might be because of some of the reasons that we've just talked about. But it could be that they're struggling because of a learning or thinking difference. Can you give us a couple of examples of what we should be on the lookout for to figure out if that's what's going on?

Brendan: Sure. Yeah. And I think that happens a lot. I think that's hard to determine. Is this an issue where, you know, a child just has some negative feelings about the subject and they're resistant to it, versus a child who continues to struggle with the same concepts over and over again, right? So if we're thinking about at an early age, you know, we're thinking about how kids are asked to grab a certain number of objects and they bring back the wrong number of objects, right? Or if we're asking them to sort by shape and color and put three here and four there and you know which one has more — questions like that that are you know, we start very early on even in preschool. If we see students continue to make the same mistakes with those types of questions, all right, that might be a red flag. Maybe there's something we should pay attention to, right?

So now we're getting into elementary school. And as the students around them are progressing through, let's say, you know, memorizing their multiplication facts or using addition and subtraction without having to count on their fingers. And we have a child who's still counting on their fingers — two, three grade levels pass when they learned it. If we're stuck in those early, you know, like I say, early elementary techniques and strategies that we use to problem-solve, that can be a red flag. Like, OK, there might be a bigger issue here. It's not just that ah, I don't like math so I wasn't paying attention that much today.

Gretchen: What would you call that — that understanding you were just describing where you know, you know how to group things, you know how to add on and what like a group of things might mean. What's that called in the math world?

Brendan: Well, so there's, you know, depending on which skill we're talking about, you know, there's your ability to perform math calculations, right? And your number sense. So your true understanding of, you know, the value of numbers. You know, as students progress through elementary school and we build on these skills, that sort of become second nature for those students who might not have a disconnect with math numbers and math symbols. But for someone who does, that's where we might see something where we would consider a math learning disability. You know, for lack of a better term, we use the term "dyscalculia" in special education. But oftentimes in schools we just refer to them as a math learning disability. It's also a mouthful to say "dyscalculia."

Gretchen: It is. And what exactly is it? Can you explain it for us?

Brendan: Sure. So if we think about, like students who are resistant to math or get nervous about math, that tends to show up more in like high-stakes situations, right? So, like, their working memory shuts down. Their fact recall. They can't remember procedures or the math facts that they just practiced the day before. When that happens, when they sort of blank out on a test, that's not really an indication that there's a math learning disability there.

What we would be concerned about is if they're never able to remember the math facts. If they're never able to get past that point of, OK, you told it to me. I practiced it. A couple minutes later, I'm still getting it wrong. That's where, you know, a teacher would have a red flag and say, OK, I need to talk to the parents. What is it that maybe they're seeing at home? And then once the larger group starts to have this conversation around, you know, the child who might be struggling a little bit in school, and then we hear from the parents and we say, yeah, you know, we still are working on like left and right shoe. Or we're still working on like, you know, following directions, like, oh, you want to go to the house three doors down to the right and they went in the wrong direction. Those are some things that would be red flags for parents to say, OK, maybe there's a bigger issue.

Now that's not specific to just dyscalculia. But now when you pair that with some of the things we're seeing in school, all right, then that might be an area where we have to start doing an evaluation to see if there's a math learning disability there.

Rachel: So are there other learning and thinking differences besides dyscalculia that can make math learning challenging? I'm thinking — so for my own kids, both of whom have ADHD. And this has been more of an issue for my son, who's in eighth grade, and he's really good at math. So he is actually a kid who's like, "This is my thing," right? But he struggles with the "show your work" requirement.

Brendan: Sure.

Rachel: And that added step, I feel like for him, it's a lot to unpack, right? It's like his brain is moving so fast that he can get the right answer. But if he needs to slow down enough to fully explain how he got to it, that's where he gets tripped up. So can you talk a little bit about whether that is kind of really part of this conversation or any other learning and thinking differences that kind of reveal themselves, you know, through math.

Brendan: So I'm glad you brought up showing work, right? So I think a lot of families might be seeing students at home doing homework and they're not showing any work and they're getting many questions wrong. I have to be honest. That's kind of the nature of students right now who do so much work online. They want to write less and less and less. So how do we start to separate is this an issue because you're having trouble writing, or is it an issue because you're sort of resistant to it, because you're not used to having to write as much and you think it's easier if you don't have to?

That being said, if you have a child, let's say, who has dysgraphia or dyspraxia, both of which can really affect handwriting, and there's so much handwriting involved in showing your work for, you know, a multi-step math calculation. Well, there can be a lot of miscalculations there because of a handwriting issue. And if once we're able to identify which one is causing the miscalculation, then we can identify how to support it and better support that child.

Gretchen: Couldn't it also be a reading challenge sometimes, right? Like, I think about all of the math as you get up into the upper grades that has reading involved, like reading a story of a problem. And then having to not only get the reading right, but then maybe to have to get the writing right when you have to explain your answer.

Brendan: Right. So one of the learning disabilities that a lot of children have, you know, two in one, right? So we call them co-morbid. What we're saying there is that if a child has dyscalculia, they also may have another learning disability, and dyslexia is one of them. And what happens is some of those characteristics overlap and one in particular is difficulty with working memory, right? So it's — yes, it's in our short-term memory, but then we have to then apply it. And that is something that both students with dyslexia, students with dyscalculia, students with ADHD struggle with.

So think about how much working memory we need to solve math problems. It's not only fact recall, but then holding that fact that we just calculated to then apply it to the next step of the problem. There's so many missteps along the way when we struggle with working memory. And you alluded to reading and writing as well. And just understanding the symbols of mathematics, understanding the vocabulary of math, especially as it gets more and more challenging in the later grades. And they're supposed to pick that up and apply it to the next problem that they're solving. That can be really challenging.

I mean, as I say this, I feel like, yeah, it sounds hard for anybody, you know. But now imagine having one or two learning disabilities and you're struggling through class. You can understand why — back to the first part of our conversation — why many kids would be resistant to this subject to begin with.

Rachel: So I'm curious what drew you to math? Like, did you like it as a kid? Did something click for you at some point where you were like, oh, I get why this works or why this is fun?

Brendan: Yeah, you know, math was something I was always, you know, fairly good at — feeling — I felt pretty confident in the subject. And I think that stems all the way back to my middle school years. I started to realize not only was I confident in my math ability, but I was I was really comfortable in thinking of how to solve problems in a variety of ways. And I think that's probably my strongest suit as a special education math teacher is that I don't expect things to be done one way only. Everything can't be the same. That's the opposite of what we're trying to do. We want that flexibility. We want all of our students to shine. And we have to, you know, differentiate what it is that we do enough for everyone to feel like they have some success.

And I — you know, I think having those opportunities as a young kid to really take those risks and to help out some of the people around me who just hated the subject, who just hated it. They had to power through it. And I said, "Oh, let me show you something different." I remember doing that at a pretty early age and I felt like, yeah, I kind of ended up here for a reason.

Gretchen: I remember those students when I was in math and struggling who I'd be like, they know how to answer this differently. I'm going to ask them how they're doing it.

Brendan: I do joke with my students now. I said, oh, I got in a lot of trouble in seventh grade. And they said, for what? I said, I was talking all the time in class. And they said, you were talking? I'm like, yeah, but I was helping kids. And they're like, what do you mean? And I was like, yeah, they would come to me for the answer, but I wouldn't give them the answer. I would say, well, show me what you're doing. It's like exactly what I do now. And they just laugh at me like, you wouldn't do that. I swear, that's exactly what I was doing in seventh grade math.

Gretchen: Well, that's awesome.

Rachel: So, Brendan, we sometimes hear about math anxiety, which I think is more than just the average nervousness that some of us feel when it comes to doing math or just doing calculations. Can you talk a little bit about math anxiety — what it is and how to help kids who have it or how to address it?

Brendan: Yeah, this is something I think over the last decade has really gotten a lot of attention, and I think for really good reason. One, I think students were being not necessarily misdiagnosed with, let's say, learning disabilities or just, you know, being put into math interventions because of a non-math issue, right? The issue is we're feeling anxious. We're nervous. We're so afraid we're going to get something wrong that it it blocks us from doing the things we do know how to do, right? And that's real. When you feel that kind of anxiety, it sort of takes over a portion of your brain that's separate from where the mathematical calculations and reasoning would take place. And then what happens is it actually throws up a blocker within your working memory. So suddenly yesterday you were getting every question right, and then today it's like you can't even remember what was taught. And you're taking the test and you're nervous, or somebody is working with you and you get nervous. And that blocker goes up and now you're stuck.

And I think there are some things that we can do as both parents and teachers to kind of sort of let's bring that wall down, let's get past that nervousness. So a couple of strategies that I've been utilizing specifically over the last couple of years: When we are working towards something that's a little more high-stakes, I like to build confidence with something really low-stakes. All right? So I was giving a test today, and the test was not an easy one. Some difficult concepts in there. But one of the foundational concepts was just multiplying with positive and negative numbers, or adding with positive and negative numbers — things that I know my students have mastered. So I gave them three minutes, 10 quick questions. Every kid got, you know, walked away from those three minutes with eight or nine or ten correct. And I said, "Doesn't that feel good? Like you really know this stuff? Like you really are confident, let's keep that ball rolling and move into something a little more challenging."

That can be done at any age level. When you step into a challenging situation with a little more confidence, you're willing to take the risk. You're willing to kind of power through some of that problem-solving you might need to do. So that would be my first recommendation.

My second one, you know, this one's a little bit more new age, I guess, is the best way to describe it. Just doing some breathwork to try to relieve some of that anxiety. There's one that I really love, and this one is called a physiological sigh. You know, the physiological sigh is? You ever heard that before?

Rachel: No, but I think I'm about to do one.

Brendan: Yeah, we're all going to do one. This one is great. So when you're starting to feel really anxious — and this would work, you know, in any particular situation. But I have my students do this when I can tell the anxiety level is high and I need them to just kind of calm down. Sometimes the energy's just really high and I need the room to just settle. And what we do is you want to take an inhale in almost to the point of a full capacity. Pause for a second, and then a second inhale, like a quicker one. And then once you've done that, then you let it out slowly. All right? So it's like a full, you know, almost a full inhale, and then a little bit more, and then let it out. And really just two of those. You automatically just feel your body just go ahhh. So my students like that one, too. It's nice and calming and then, OK, we're ready to...

Rachel: I'm going to do that later.

Gretchen: I feel like I must have had math anxiety now. Like you just described this, and I feel like that's what would happen to me sometimes on tests, as I would be so — you're right. My working memory was blocked by the fear and the anxiety that I had that I would just blank out, even though I knew how to do something the day before. I would just completely blank out. And I would feel my body tingle and I'd get all sweaty. And if I had done that breathing, I might have been better off.

Rachel: Well, and I think that happens for a lot of kids too, is like they decide they're not good at something. And then it's just like, over.

Brendan: And that can be a major concern if you write it off by third or fourth grade, which the research shows many people decide they are good or bad at math by third or fourth grade. And that's — I think that's also why I teach middle school, because I'm like, all right, it's my job to convince you you're not bad at math, that there's you know, there's things you're really great at and you can be confident in. And we're going to lean on those strengths. And everything else? There's strategies to get around it.

Rachel: So what can parents and caregivers do at home, like from a fun stuff perspective? Like what kinds of games or like things they can do at home so it feels a little different from a classroom lesson. But that will still help a child who's struggling with or is just like, I hate math.

Brendan: The first thing we want to do is be careful with the language that we use, right? If we're negative about math, our kids are going to be negative about math. Right? Unless they're totally resistant to what we're saying.

Rachel: So not like, I hate it, right?

Brendan: I started — you know, it doesn't mean we can't say, you know, I struggled with it, too. That's OK.

Rachel: Right.

Brendan: Because if you follow "I struggled with it, too" with "But I found ways to get good at it. And I felt really confident in this particular area. Maybe that'll be something you're going to be good at too." Having those kind of positive conversations around math. More of a — you know, we talk about a growth mindset a lot, but having that notion of it's really about your progress. It's not about mastery. I'm not expecting to be perfect at this, but I want to see that you're getting better because I know, you know, if I worked on something really hard, I could get better at it. I think you can to, you know, those positive reinforcement opportunities should be around progress, not mastery. So I think that's step one.

You referenced playing some games at home. I think that's the easiest way to work in math skills. I think a lot of people look for the perfect game to practice the skill that their kids might be struggling with. We don't need to do that, right? We want to find games that are engaging and fun and having our kids work through, you know, problem-solving, mathematical reasoning. So just things like Connect Four. To this day, I still have middle-schoolers playing Connect Four and they love it. Not because they love Connect Four. They love the competition of it, right? There's so much embedded in something like Connect Four, where they're looking at patterns, where they're trying to see, like strategize, like, OK, if I go, what are my three steps ahead of me? Right? It's like playing chess, but a little bit easier. And they love it. And that's a really good skill to then carry with them into the math class.

So other games that parents might be comfortable playing with are Uno, or card games, you know, using a traditional deck of cards to play games. So games like like 21. They can work in specific math skills without, you know, kids feeling like, hey, I'm sitting here doing math. So if your goal is to get to 21 and you have, you know, eight in front of you, what are you hoping comes out next? If it's low, should we take, you know, take another card? Should we not? Having those conversations back and forth. You're talking about like really good math skills because you're making predictions based on your ability to add, subtract, find the difference, make number comparisons. But you're not doing math. You're not sitting down solving math problems on a worksheet or on a computer, which kids seem to be so resistant to.

Rachel: Those are really great. And another thing that I do at home, that's not really a game, but it's just like I try to sneak the math into, you know, when we're cooking. Or if I see that there's something coming up with a lot of fractions, I'm just like, come here, help me with this.

Brendan: Cooking is such a good example of where math is utilized all the time. And we're not necessarily thinking like, OK, I'm sitting down solving math problems, I'm just measuring some things out.

Rachel: And they don't feel like they're doing math.

Brendan: Right? I need to triple this recipe so how many do I need altogether? Another really good one is just measuring things out. Right? So you're hanging curtains or you're building something in the garage. That constant use of the measuring tape is one of the best things you can do to help students understand numbers between whole numbers, right? All these fractional parts in between can be so challenging for many of our students. And just having that knowledge — that visual representation of where it falls in between. And are we talking about halves? Are we talking about fourths? Things like that. It's really — it can be really powerful.

Gretchen: OK. We have one last question for you, Brendan. You know, let's say our kid is just saying "I'm bad at math" and we're just letting them throw in the towel on it. Or maybe I threw in my own towel on math. So if we're doing that, if we're kind of giving up on math, what are we missing out on in life if we don't appreciate and love math?

Brendan: All right. That's a great question. I think math provides you with a level of confidence in your ability to take on really challenging tasks. And, you know, I try to explain as — especially as math gets so much more difficult through grade levels — I try to explain, like, you may never graph a linear function in real life. You may not stop to do that. But if you can do this, what does that mean you're able to do in your own personal life?

And I think that's, in a way, what we're getting to do mathematically. They're able to then apply in various problem-solving situations and analyze different situations. And you don't have to become an engineer or a finance major just to need to know math. I think that's the message that I would pass on, is that just because it's hard doesn't mean we shouldn't do it.

Gretchen: I appreciate that. Thank you so much for all of your math wisdom and your breathing techniques. And I really appreciated all of it.

Rachel: Thank you for those.

Brendan: I'm glad you guys enjoyed them.

Gretchen: You've been listening to "In It" from the Understood Podcast Network.

Rachel: This show is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Email us at init@understood.org to share your thoughts. We love hearing from you.

Gretchen: If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.

Rachel: Understood.org is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at Understood.org/mission.

Gretchen: "In It" is produced by Julie Subrin. Briana Berry is our production director. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Errico wrote our theme music.

Rachel: For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening.

Gretchen: And thanks for always being in it with us.

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Hosts

  • Gretchen Vierstra, MA

    is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the In It podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.

    • Rachel Bozek

      is co-host of the In It podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents. 

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