When a child develops a fear of math, homework time can become battle time! But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Setting up a comfort zone for a child who is struggling with math anxiety can be relatively simple and it can help to ease the fear and discomfort the child feels when required to focus on math homework, despite feelings of fear, frustration and even anger towards it.
The first thing you want to establish is an area that the child feels comfortable in. This should include a comfortable chair and desk that is easy to sit at and reach their book and other materials. You may also want to place some potted plants and/or a fish bowl around the work area to make it less ‘school like’ and more inviting.
You’ll also want to provide something, other than their work or a blank wall, to look at. The best option for this is probably a window. The reason for this is sometimes when a student gets stressed about the work they are doing a small distraction like looking at a blue sky or the world outside makes them feel a bit less trapped (and looking outside can be quite calming especially if there are trees or clouds to look at).*
In addition, it’s also helpful for your and your child together to create a poster or a white board/chalkboard that has information related to what the child is working on in math on it; such as equations, facts, hints and foundational skills for what they are currently working on. This helps them by not thinking they have to pull all this information from their heads and gives them a helpful reminder of what they need to get their work done.
If your child is inspired by inspirational quotes or stickers those are good to include as well. Also make sure to use colours that the child likes and have a calming influence on them (blue and green are good colours to use, try to avoid red where possible). **
You also want to make sure that there are opportunities for the child to take ‘brain breaks’ that allow them to process the information they are learning and avoid becoming overwhelmed. These breaks can be looking out the window, colouring something (colouring has been shown to have great calming properties), breathing exercises/mediation or doing some sort of physical activity (jumping jacks or a silly dance are my personal favourites).
These breaks shouldn’t last more than a few minutes (5 at the maximum) and it needs to be established right from the start that they are not to be used to avoid doing the work but can be used if the child starts to feel overwhelmed.
Study groups can also be a good idea. If there are a few kids in the neighbourhood bring them together (even if they’re not in the same grade level). This does require a bit more supervision to keep them on task and ensure everyone is being supportive, but the group encouragement and experience can be really helpful if all the kids are working on math homework together. It takes the loneliness out of the equation for a child with math anxiety and older children can sometimes help explain concepts and provide encouragement.
The important thing to keep in mind is that math anxiety is real and it affects your child’s ability to not only do their homework but also to process the information they are being taught or should be learning from their homework. Not to mention it can make homework time feel like battle time; and no one looks forward to that!
With just a few steps and an understanding between you and your child that math anxiety is real and you recognize they are struggling with it, it can remove some of the embarrassment they may feel and frustration making math, and math homework time, more enjoyable, interesting and even fun!
* You may be thinking, I can’t place my child in front of a window as they’ll just stare out of it and not get any work done, or they’ll just take advantage of the ‘brain breaks’ to waste time so they don’t have to get the work done, and this can be the case sometimes. However, most of the children I’ve worked with over the years have indeed, at first, taken advantage of the ‘free distraction’ to avoid doing their homework, but once they feel comfortable in the space and that these breaks are there to help them when they get frustrated, they’ll likely be more apt to try doing their work instead of just staring out the window or taking breaks. If you do find that it is a continuous issue you can put a time limit on it or put a curtain over the window and limit the break time to a minute or two as needed.
** There are some interesting studies out there about the psychology of colours