Explorations In Math

Math Safety Nets

Published on January 9 2012

Our children and our students can be easily intimidated by math and can start developing math anxiety, even math phobia, at a young age. There’s no question that this will seriously hinder their ability to learn, let alone enjoy, math as they go through the grades. One of the things we can do, as parents and as teachers, is to build in safety nets when we work with our children and students. Here are some ideas, things I’ve found to be effective:

• If a child gives a wrong answer, I tell her that that’s OK—I like wrong answers. They’re not as good as correct answers, but here’s why wrong answers are also good: They tell me three good things about her: she’s listening, she’ s thinking and she’s trying, and what more can we ask? Any child who listens, thinks and tries is going to succeed.

• In a similar vein, when a child gives a wrong answer I tell him that it’s OK to be wrong. All of us are wrong sometimes but we learn from our mistakes. I give the example of falling off a bike when learning to ride. Every time you fall off a bike, you’ve done something “wrong,” but you learn from that, get back on and do better.

• Sometimes I’ll ask a question and the student won’t respond. Usually that means he doesn’t know but doesn’t want to say so for fear of appearing “stupid.” In this case, after a few seconds of silence, I simply say, “You know, it’s OK not to know. Nobody knows everything and we’re all learning.”

• Don’t tell your child or your students that math is “hard.” A much better word is “challenging.” In a student’s mind (and for a lot of adults), “hard” is too closely associated with boring and failure. “Challenging,” on the other hand, can be presented as a way of the child testing him or herself. “Challenging” carries it with the possibility of being interesting, rewarding, even fun.

In short, let’s do all we can to instill in our kids the idea that math is, indeed interesting, rewarding, even fun. And, above all, doable.

Dave Gardner

Mathematician in Residence

5 Reader Comments to “Math Safety Nets”
  • By Bon Crowder on January 12, 2012 | Reply

    Great ideas, Dave!

    All of this is supported by research my partner is doing. In particular, one paper about avoidance behaviors is really interesting and talks about the reasons kids tend to avoid giving math a shot. Much of it is exactly what you’re talking about here!

    This is it:


    Thanks, Dave!

  • By Dave Gardner on January 12, 2012 | Reply

    Thanx for the feedback, Bon, and the link to the journal article. I’ve printed out a hard copy to read later and I’ll share it with my colleagues. If you, or your partner, would like to write a guest post, please email me at


  • By Katie on January 14, 2012 | Reply

    Great post, thanks for sharing! Those are such important things to remember…my husband and I ended up giving both of our boys horrible math anxiety BEFORE they ever found themselves struggling with it. My husband hated math growing up, and did very poorly in his math subjects. We would joke about not letting him handle math in our homeschool, and why he wouldn’t do any math with the boys. They would overhear and started to think that if their dad was bad at it, they were going to be.

    Thanks again!

    Mom to a 7th grade homeschooler, helping him conquer his math anxiety one day at a time.

  • By Dave Gardner on January 16, 2012 | Reply

    In an upcoming post i mentioned a woman who blanched and said she hated math and was afraid of it (!) when I mentioned that a board game we were going to play used the same kind of thinking skills that math does: flexible thinking and making connections. It’s good to know you’re doing the right thing in dispelling math anxiety in your child. Thanx for commenting!


  • By Wil Devine on January 17, 2012 | Reply

    Bon’s partner here (from post above). We are finding info in the research about what Katie had mentioned - that parents’ outlook on math can influence the attitudes of the kids (and their subsequent engagement or avoidance).
    “Parental encouragement in math has been found to significantly influence students’ learning experiences and attitude toward math.” This was in an article by Gary Scarpello (https://eric.ed.gov/PDFS/EJ775465.pdf). More solid correlational data can be found in the other article gave in Bon’s post above.
    Keep spreading the word!

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