“You have five minutes, class. Begin… now.”

Simone Mittelstaedt stared in panic at the paper in front of her. So many multiplication questions — 100 of them! — to solve in such a short time. She was familiar with the paralyzing sense of dread — heart racing, stomach clenching, brain freezing — that seized her when her teacher surprised the class with a pop math quiz. This time, though, it was worse than usual for Simone, a second grader who had been struggling in math for three years at her local public school. The problems staring back at her might as well have been in hieroglyphics. Simone had no idea what she was supposed to do.

The least she could do, she decided, was to fill in all the answers. That had to count for something. When the five minutes were over and the quizzes handed in, Simone had completed every problem. Still, when she set down her pencil, she felt defeated by the incomprehensible swirl of numbers. Another miserable math class. Simone had been having a tough time with math for awhile, but that Thursday afternoon in April she joined the ranks of millions of otherwise successful human beings who had been traumatized by a timed math test.

Stanford Professor Jo Boaler reports a definitive link between timed tests and math anxiety and says timed math tests damage children’s relationships with math. “When we put students through this anxiety-provoking experience, we lose students from mathematics,” she said. Scared and scarred, math for them becomes an ugly four-letter word.

In the next few years, at math time, Simone would feel the anxiety steal over her at the prospect of multiplication or fractions or long division. To escape, she’d routinely ask permission to go to the bathroom, then shuffle slowly down the school hallway to forestall the demonic blur of numbers that lay in wait at her desk.

Pick your phobia: spiders, snakes, math

Math anxiety, also referred to as math phobia, is a negative emotional reaction to a situation that requires mathematical problem solving. While it hasn’t made its way into the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition) as an official mental illness, math anxiety plagues millions of adults and children — each of whom have their math horror story — thanks to an insensitive teacher, a clueless parent, a concept that never clicked. According to Stanford professor Vinod Menon, who co-authored a study on the neurodevelopmental basis of math anxiety, the part of the brain agitated by math anxiety is the same part “that responds to fearful situations, such as seeing a spider or snake.”

It most often rears its head in the early elementary school years, then escalates during the upper elementary years. Middle school is also a time many children, girls especially, fall off the math cliff. For children who suffer from severe math anxiety, the implications are sobering. Studies show that people with math anxiety do worse on tests, steer clear of high-level math courses, and avoid pursuing math-related fields. Meanwhile, high schoolers who successfully take higher-level math classes are more likely to graduate from college. They’re also likely to earn more money.

Math anxiety is also something of an American epidemic. It’s so commonplace, in fact, that it’s acceptable to hear educated adults openly declare, “I’m not a math person” or “I’m bad at math,” almost as if it were a boast. “Math is America’s biggest weakness compared to countries around the world,” says Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World.” Our teenagers rank 26th in math on the PISA test — and 12th in reading on the same test. Even our richest quartile of kids, who have highly educated parents, computers at home, and tricked-out schools, perform 18th in the world in math compared to the richest quartile of kids in other countries.”

Only 32 percent of U.S. high school students are proficient in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Comparable proficiency rates in math are 45 percent in Germany, 49 percent in Canada, and, no surprise, 63 percent in education superstar Singapore. It’s an educational malady that the U.S. can ill-afford to perpetuate, given that so many careers in the 21st century are projected to be in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields.

Confusion + terror = math anxiety

Despite the national prevalence — and the handwringing of countless experts — there is no easy panacea for treating math anxiety. Simone’s story offers a  glimpse at how difficult it can be — on child and family alike — to fight the math phobia monster.

“I’m really sorry I did really badly on this test, Mommy,” Simone explained to her mother that afternoon, handing over the quiz filled dutifully, but with wrong answers. “I just wanted to do well like everybody else.”

Although the 7-year-old had gotten at least a handful of the equations right, the teacher inked a giant X over her work, followed by a comment “Rejecting this test. Next time do the work w/out the nonsense,” and below that added a line where she demanded Simone sign her name — a forced confession.

Simone’s answers — 4×3 = 43, 2×0 = 2, 5×5 = 5 — made it clear she wasn’t trying to play the class clown; she hadn’t even begun to comprehend the basic idea of multiplication, but at least she was trying different tactics. Her confusion, though, should have come as no surprise to the teacher because Simone had been grappling with math the entire year. (In first grade, she’d been just as baffled. “We were doing these things with shapes and colors and stuff I didn’t understand,” says Simone. “My teachers were nice in first grade, but they didn’t explain it that well to me.”)

Incensed that the teacher hadn’t helped clarify where their daughter had gone wrong — and worse, ridiculed her for it — Simone’s parents, Pia Hinckle and Chris Mittelstaedt, weren’t about to let sleeping dogs lie.

After several difficult weeks passed, with their encouragement, Simone wrote her teacher a note decorated at the bottom with an illustration of a girl sprouting a flood of tears: “Dear Miss Walker, I did not like it when you made me sign the test. It made me want to cry. It made me want to go home. It made me feel like I was bad at math. It made me feel like I wanted to stop math and never want to go back to school. Simone.”

Math anxiety
Simone’s letter to her second grade teacher. (Click to enlarge.)

Now 13 years old and in the eighth grade, the soft-spoken teen appears bemused, maybe even a little embarrassed, that her mother saved the evidence of this math incident — the letters her mother wrote to the principal and superintendent, as well as the X-marked test and Simone’s response to her teacher. “I can’t believe you kept this,” she whispers. Sitting in her sunny San Francisco dining room, Simone barely remembers the note she wrote, but memories of the day linger. “My teacher said, ‘OK, you guys, if everybody gets 100 percent correct, then you will get an ice cream party,’ so I was really, really excited because I like ice cream.”

With her mane of strawberry blonde hair, a shower of faint freckles on her pale skin, and a contained kinetic energy that buzzes beneath her thin frame and oversized sweater, Simone has both the drive and devotion to pursue her passions for piano and gymnastics, drawing and yes, school. She talks animatedly about writing and reading, subjects that have always come easily. She loves writing so much, in fact, she saved up her money to buy a typewriter to type her short stories. But after the second grade trauma, Pia recalls, “the most dramatic moment was when she said, ‘I’m just not good at math.’ In a way, she was almost relieved like, ‘Now I don’t have to try anymore.’ She had given up on math at 7.”

Pia, whose eldest child has learning disabilities, knew from experience not to ignore an academic crisis in the making. “It’s important to not waste a lot of time when they are little,” she says. Especially since with math, one concept typically builds on another: if you miss an important one, you may find yourself more and more lost as each school year passes.

Simone’s parents got her tested, but she didn’t have dyscalculia (an inability to “read” numbers, which affects an estimated 3 percent to 6 percent of the population) like her older brother. Still, she needed major remediation. There weren’t nightly tears, says Pia, so much as never-ending frustration and incomprehension. “It was about trying to change her attitude, because she was so resigned that she was bad at math and was never going to get good at it, so why spend the time and effort.”

By the time third grade began, Simone was enrolled in Linda Mood Bell — a private tutoring company that offers one-on-one remediation to the tune of about $80 an hour. Then her parents hired a part-time teacher from Simone’s school for weekly sessions. They also let Simone’s third grade teacher know that their bright, curious daughter panicked at the thought of math and needed extra support. The teacher was supportive, but Simone fell still further behind. “I was having a really hard time with fractions,” says Simone, who ruefully noted that her twin sister, who was in the other class, got to do fractions with M&Ms. “I kept thinking I wanted to be in that class. It’s not all about a reward, but it’s more like they should make it fun to learn instead of just have it be boring.”

Still, there were times tables she couldn’t get — those horrid nines and sevens — and problems that left her desperately counting on her fingers under the desk. “I was still worst in the class in math,” she says.

Gospel truth … or societal delusion?

Why are so many children petrified by math above all other subjects, so words like “integer” and “polygon” send them running in the opposite direction? Why no phobias of natural history or widespread anxiety over social studies?

No one knows the exact moment when math first began to terrorize our nation, but research has discovered that this deep societal fear of math is passed along, though not genetically, from one generation to the next. According to Elizabeth Gunderson, an assistant professor at Temple University’s psychology department who has researched math anxiety, there is an “adult-to-child transference” that happens — usually unwittingly — so the “math is hard” aphorism is upheld through the ages as gospel truth rather than societal delusion.

Experts who have studied math anxiety say that societal delusion is predicated on a pernicious American education myth: you’re either good at math, or you aren’t. It’s a strange affliction for Americans in particular, given our “I can do it!” culture. Still, the common wisdom is that the lucky ones are born with a math gene, a preternatural gift for unraveling the beauty and mystery of strange squiggles on a chalkboard. That leaves the rest, victims of a math deficiency that hobbles them for life, to struggle.

According to Sheila Tobias, author of Overcoming Math Anxiety, unless a student suffers from a rare learning difference such as dyscalculia, any child can be good at math. Boaler agrees. Maybe they won’t be Good Will Hunting good, Tobias says, but they can be accomplished enough to master the basics in school and even discover the beauty and joy that comes with logical, higher-ordered thinking and problem solving.

“There’s a lot of unlearning to do,” says Tobias.

Boaler says one of the first things to do is change how we think of math fluency. One does not need to be fast or have everything memorized to learn math and understand numeral relationships. She says many mathematicians are not particularly fast calculators but “they think deeply and carefully about mathematics.”

Tobias encourages parents to proceed with caution with a math-phobic child. “If your child says, ‘I’m bad at math,’” Tobias says, the best way to answer is “with a counter-factual statement: ‘You can’t be bad at math because you’re so good at tennis, and you can calculate when the ball is going to be on your side of the court.’ … Whatever your child does well, you can find a link to math.”

Much of the anti-math message is spread by teachers, says Smartest Kids in the World author Ripley. “We tend to recruit many teachers — especially elementary [school] teachers — who themselves suffer from math phobia. Why is this? That is the enduring mystery. But it may be partly because many of our more than 1,000 teacher-training colleges have very low academic standards compared to the top-performing countries. You don’t need to have good grades in math to become a teacher. And many teachers, who majored in education or got a language arts degree, are what’s known as “math avoidant.” More than half of them never took college-level math.”

The implications are ominous. Ripley cites a 2010 study by the Center for Research in Mathematics and Science Education: “U.S. future teachers are getting weak training mathematically and are just not prepared to teach the demanding mathematics curriculum we need, especially for middle schools, if we hope to compete internationally.”

Parents also have great influence. When parents say, “I’ve never been good at math” or “I can’t do math to save my life,” it sends a message to the child that there’s nothing to be done about being bad at math. Gunderson has discovered that mothers in particular — who heard the same message from their mothers – pass down their numerical discomfort to their daughters — a concern, given that girls are still sorely underrepresented in male-dominated math and science fields.

Down the ‘rithmatic rabbit hole

“I’m very challenged in math,” admits Simone’s mother, Pia. “I remember long division giving me trauma.” Pia herself wanted to be a marine biologist — and in her early school years says she loved math — but gave up when she found upper-level math too hard. Pia may have communicated her own apprehension about math, but on every other measure, she could be held up as role model of what to do right when you discover your child has math anxiety.

Even with extra support in third grade, Simone found herself slipping down the ‘rithmatic rabbit hole. Her path became even rockier by fourth grade, when she faced decimals, multidigit multiplication, and prealgebra, transforming math time into an entirely new kind of nightmare.

By fifth grade, despite excelling in social studies, history, reading, and writing, Simone was often lost when confronted by three-digit multiplication, graphing numbers on grids, and place value.

That’s when Pia found math tutor Jennifer Heifferon. Working from an apartment filled with colorful boxes of math manipulatives like dice, counting blocks, play money, and board games, Heifferon used her years as a learning difference specialist to help Simone. She knew more math worksheets wouldn’t solve Simone’s math problem. Instead, Heifferon says she needed to “break down the barriers” that Simone had so deftly constructed to protect herself from the chilling specter that cast a pall over so many hours of her learning day. Heifferon and Simone walked around the neighborhood measuring octagons and parallelograms; they baked cookies to practice fractions; they were doing what amounted to math therapy.

“She made math so exciting and fun,” Simone recalls. By bringing math down to the basics and relating it to the real world, Simone began to see that math is simply another language — one that helps make sense of the world in a way words can’t.

A girl thing?

Heifferon says that Simone is hardly unique — so many girls (growing up, she was math-phobic before falling in love with statistics in college) — become paralyzed when asked to live in the world of numbers. Which begs the question: Why it is that girls in particular suffer so much from math anxiety? According to Gunderson, much can be attributed to “adult-to-child” transference in the classroom.

Gunderson’s found that female students’ math learning is negatively affected by their female teachers’ math anxiety. “The teacher’s math anxiety affects how they teach,” says Gunderson. “The stronger the teacher’s math anxiety, the less the girls learned.” Understanding that children tend to model behavior of adults of the same sex, and that more than 80 percent of elementary school teachers in the U.S. are women, the “girl thing” starts to add up.

From her studies, Gunderson extrapolates, “Teacher’s math anxiety reinforces the girl’s stereotypes that see math as a male domain and reading as female.” Gunderson speculates that other factors, some more subtle, may be chipping away at a girl’s confidence. It may be that “teachers who are math anxious spend less time on math or are saying things like, ‘it’s OK if you’re not good at math,’ or they humiliate kids because they themselves are uncomfortable with it.”

According to Lucy O’Dwyer, a San Francisco math tutor for 20 years, it’s the fear of math — not the inability to actually do it — that holds girls back. “The boys who come to me tend to be struggling with the material, not with confidence,” she explains. With girls, it’s different. “For so many girls who come to me, they don’t know that they know it… What I bring to them is that sense of confidence.”

Indeed, Gunderson says it’s the anxiety that hobbles kids. “People with more math anxiety do less well. … When you have math anxiety, it creates these verbal ruminations in your mind — ‘I’m worried about math, what if I screw up?’ — it overloads it. Anxiety can overload your memory; it’s a feedback loop. You have anxiety and you do worse, and it’s a downward spiral. In the absence of that anxiety, you do just fine.” Girls, she said, often tend to focus on the scary possibility of failing — and that eclipses the focus of learning for learning’s sake. Going back to the fixed mindset work of Carol Dweck, says Gunderson, if your goal “is to get good grades, you’re more set up for anxiety. If it’s to learn, that’s much better.”

Solving a problem, step by careful step

After months of ad hoc math therapy, Simone began to show signs of change. “Once she gained confidence, she started having more success,” recalls Heifferon. But she says helping Simone find “a new math identity,” was the most difficult part, one that was hard-won several years later. “I said to Simone, ‘You’re no longer in second grade, you’re now in seventh grade. How many years apart is that? You’re an entirely different person.’ Once she separated the two in her mind, she realized, ‘Oh wow, I’m older. I don’t have to be handicapped by this.’”

It’s taken six years for much of the damage to be undone. Last year, Simone got her first A in math. “She’s made great strides,” says Pia, but “the struggle continues. … Math still takes a lot of attention and is tiring and frustrating. It’s always going to take extra attention and work. We’re still saying on top of it so she doesn’t slip further.” Simone continues to see Heifferon weekly; this year they’re tackling eighth-grade algebra, which often leaves Simone beyond baffled.

Still, she’s one of the lucky ones who, chances are, won’t grow up forever haunted by the “I’m bad at math” curse. “I would say I’m reasonably smart in math,” Simone says now. “I sort of like it, but I don’t love it.” But she’s not planning to let it hold her back. One day, she says, she may even pursue a career as a psychiatrist or doctor — two fields that happen to require a lot of math.