Down With Times Tables: A Child’s Very Real Anxiety

Math and I do not get along.

The times tables did it.

When multiplication tables and division were introduced in class, I remember understanding what multiplying numbers is meant to do, but the actual determination of what, say, 9x9 equals to, in my young years, took me a relatively long time to grasp. I didn’t take to the activity of finding the product as quickly and easily as I did to the reading and writing assignments we were given.

I knew right away that math was a different sort of animal when my mom blew up while helping me with my homework. She would still watch me work on assignments then, and when it came to multiplication and division, I immediately experienced a struggle unlike any other. She patiently walked me through the concepts, and then read the multiplication questions I had to answer out loud.

I must have kept making mistakes, because all I remember that one particular night was my mother storming out of the bedroom in frustration, shouting at my sisters to take over because I simply wasn’t getting it. And me crying over my textbook, confused about why she was so angry at me.

I suppose she couldn’t understand why I was having so much trouble with simple math concepts when all three of my older sisters had no problem with them. Form that night on, I never asked anyone in my family to help me with homework again — which I knew was a bad idea, because I certainly wasn’t going to get better with the subject on my own. But I didn’t want to see my mother or sisters get upset over my seeming incapacity to give the right answers, so I clammed up instead and suffered in silence.

The Game of Shame

The horror I experienced every time math class began at school intensified when my math teacher repeatedly made the class play a game, I suppose to make multiplying and dividing numbers more fun. She would divide the class into two groups. She would call one student from each group to stand at the back of the classroom, while she stood in front. She would then use flashcards to present a multiplication or division problem, and the first of the two students to say the correct answer takes a step forward. Whoever reaches the front of the classroom first wins appoint for the group, and the teacher calls the next pair to stand until everyone gets called and a winning group is declared.

Getting up to play that game caused me such panic, especially since I seemed to be the only person in the entire class who wasn’t thrilled about being called. I managed to win a few times, but more often than not I trailed behind the other player. Looking back on that scenario now, there couldn’t be a more fitting description of what my struggles with math looked like: The entire class cheering, eager to participate, while I shrank in my seat trying not to be called. And when I did stand up to play, I never made it to the front of the class — I pretty much stayed at the back, left behind by my peers.

The struggle is real

In 2012, a study published in the journal Psychological Science revealed that the part of the brain linked with fear exhibited signs of increased activity among second and third grade children with math anxiety. Also, children with math anxiety were found to work less accurately and more slowly when working on math problems.

In addition, an article published by the Washington Post in 2011 discussed math anxiety not merely as having disdain for the subject, but experiencing actual stress, anxiety and other negative emotions while doing math processes. It appears that people who are anxious about math tend to use up the brain power needed to solve math problems over stressing out, and therefore they find it even more difficult to process and remember math concepts.

Finding a better approach

According to instructors over at Mathnasium in Dubai, children don’t hate math — what they hate is being confused and intimidated by the subject. Unfortunately, traditional classrooms follow a specific schedule for delivering lessons and may not be equipped to provide additional attention to students who are struggling with math. If they do have a tutoring program after class, it will present more of the same lessons, which the child is already having trouble dealing with.

A better solution, perhaps, would be to get specialized instructors to teach children a different approach to math. On Mathnasium’s website (, they use a unique method developed by Larry Martinek to determine what a child does not know about math and then develop a personalized program to teach, test, and encourage the child to develop better math skills.

I sure would have been happy to try such a program while I was in school, had it been available — it would have saved me from years of stress, confusion and frustration. Now, I’ve made peace with my math struggles (I use calculators), but I hope children today are getting more customized help and encouragement so that they can realize that math is something they should not have to fear.

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