Overcoming Math Anxiety

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Episode 63│Overcoming Math Anxiety

Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022

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Eugenio Longoria Saenz

Do you start sweating when your kids ask for help with math homework? Lots of parents struggle with math anxiety—our child’s and our own—but math is everywhere and it’s our job to help our children embrace it. We sat down with Eugenio Longoria Saenz, founding director of the Center for Family Math at The National Association for Family, School and Community Engagement (NAFSCE). He shares how you can overcome your own math anxiety and help your child learn how to approach math with curiosity and an open mind.


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Helen Westmoreland: Welcome back to Notes From the Backpack, a PTA podcast. I'm Helen Westmoreland

Kisha DeSandies Lester: And I'm Kisha DeSandies Lester, and we're your co-hosts.

Helen Westmoreland: And today we're talking about math. It's become common for families to read stories at bedtime. Maybe listen to audio books in the car and generally make reading a fun family activity. But what about math?

Kisha DeSandies Lester: What about math, Helen? I think a lot of families, aren't sure what to say about that subject. We wanna empower our children to love math and not fear it, but at the same time, we're a little bit scared about the new math and how to support our children, when the math gets more difficult.

Helen Westmoreland: So true, Kisha, and sometimes you even hear adults say I'm not a math person or I'm bad at math, but you would rarely hear people say I'm not a reading person or I'm bad at reading. So today we're gonna get to the bottom of why this is the case and what we can do about it.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: I'm excited, Helen, because we have just the right person to answer these questions. Today, we welcome Eugenio Longoria Saenz to the show. He is a social architect and thought innovator. He is also the founding director of the Center for Family Math at the National Association for Family School and Community Engagement, which we call NAFSCE. Hi Eugenio!

Eugenio Longoria Sáenz: Hello. I'm glad to be here.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Oh, good. We're glad to have you, can you start by telling us a little bit about your own math journey, how you feel about math and how it led to the role you're in today?

Eugenio Longoria Sáenz: That's a great question. Thank you. You know, actually what led to this role was that very question

I began to ponder the idea of what my math journey line was and what was interesting to me is when I first sat down with the idea of my math journey line, I only went as far as third grade.

Helen Westmoreland: oh wow.

Eugenio Longoria Sáenz: And the particular memory in third grade was multiplication tables, and I remember our teacher would do these drills, where, she would separate the class into two or three groups. And she would yell out like the multiplication table for five and a representative from each group would run up to the board and literally start to draw out, five times, zero, zero. five times one, one, and so on until they hit five times 12.

So it was like this math multiplication table relay race. And that memory, obviously, as I'm describing it is very, very vivid. And then I moved on into algebra one, but at the junior high level. And I remember very specifically being told that I could not participate in algebra one in middle school because my reading scores were under the state standard benchmark for approval to participate in algebra before ninth grade, specifically.

I had scored at the 83 percentile nationally on these standardized tests for reading and the cutoff was 85%. And in the context of this, I say that I was an English language learner. So I think that was pretty good for an English language learner, but nonetheless, I had to wait till ninth grade to take algebra one. And when I did I was quite good at it. But what I'll do also is I was kind of bothered about my math journey line in that I could only go back as third grade and I began to question why memories of math were absent earlier in my life.

And as I dove more deeply into sort of these memories be, you know, before third grade the earliest memory of math that I have was my mother singing lullabies to my younger siblings. And it was a lullaby about an elephant that was swinging on a spider web and realizing that the spider web was really strong, he would then invite another elephant friend to join him. Oh. So it was a counting lullaby.

My math journey line began in music, as my mother sung to my, my siblings. And I remember this song quite vividly, into this sort of competitive nature around math in third grade, into then I would say, a diminishing experience in that I was told I wasn't smart enough to achieve at math, in middle school or at least achieve in algebra one in middle school. To then realizing that I was quite strong in algebra, once I entered high school. 

The second part of why I'm at this role is that I wanted to really explore how children viewed math in the world. So as part of this process, I posed the question to friends who had children under the age of five. And I asked them to ask their children how tall giants were and to record them and send me back these little clips of their children telling us how tall giants were. And a part of me was going to expect children to say, you know, they're six feet tall or they're 30 feet tall. And in the responses that I received, not a single child spoke about the height of giants in numerical forms. They were very abstract descriptions of size. So everything from giants are these three buildings in my neighborhood stacked up, of on top of each other, and they were very specific about the building.

Like it's a, perhaps a building they go to after school. They're like, they're as tall as my school, three times over, or they would use their hands to say, they're this big. And we all know that, like I caught a fish this big and are though our hands, you know, extend maybe three or five feet, depending on how tall you are, right in their imaginations. I'm assuming when they stretch out their hands, you know, they're thinking from here to the moon, but what was, what was curious about that is that I began to also understand or relearn that math at early ages is very abstract and that once we mature through our journey line, that is math, we become much more concrete in our relationship with math.

Helen Westmoreland: Aw, thank you Eugenio, I love that. And we also sing to my daughter. (Helen and Eugenio Sing) yeah, we sing it. I did never think of it as a math song, but that's wonderful.

Well you gave a little insight in your own journey line to my next question, which is why do you think so many adults are so anxious about math, what's behind that?

Eugenio Longoria Sáenz: I think that anxiety and going back to that third grade memory, the one relay race that I remember, so three kids run up to the board and one of them, so obviously they're so winner and a loser. And this young boy obviously lost, and I still remember his name, but I'll, I won't say it and he starts to cry out of frustration. And I remember he is just like, everybody in the class is just looking at him, doesn't know how to react. So the teacher sort of says, okay, everybody go back. We're gonna try one more time. Right. So it's the same three kids, they run back up to the board and he loses again, which I think made that situation even more stressful. But I think one of the reasons that there is this anxiety that we build up around math is that it's sort of this culture, I think in schools that math becomes very performative. It becomes a competitive thing. It also becomes very binary. There's no, you're an okay student. Like either you're good or you're bad. There's no conversation in the middle. And part of that I feel is because we walk away from, I would say the, the abstract experience we have with math as young children, and then in our everyday life. So when it becomes performative in that way, we start to build anxiety around it. And think about it, the performing arts, right? Like like I don't know if you've ever sung on stage or, performed on stage.

Helen Westmoreland: Kisha, have you sung on stage?

Kisha DeSandies Lester: I have, yes.

Helen Westmoreland: Secret talents, I'm finding out about my cohost.

Eugenio Longoria Sáenz: But, I think there's many experiences that speak as to why people build anxiety around math. But that is one of the experiences that I describe because that's one that I've lived through. And then there's shame associated with math as well. So as I talked about my seventh grade experience I just wanted to be in a classroom where I had some friends that I had begun to meet in my transition from elementary school to middle school and I was told no and no for no other reason that I was not a good enough reader.

So then I honestly did not began to experience success in math until I was in ninth grade. And it was in large part to my teacher, instilling, not just in me, but in the rest of the class, that algebra was something amazing that it was this problem solving mechanism, that was quite wonderful, but we carry that anxiety into our adulthood. So as we transition, from teens in high school, into, you know, parents later on in life, in many cases, that lived experience of math  continues to be within us. And then when we're asked to now be math educators to our children, to support them in their own development, I think that math anxiety creeps up and then you said it as well.

We will often then tell our children I wasn't good at math. And this is extremely important. There's research that has sort of explored this question and one of the things that they have found out, and I'll close with this statement is that it is not math. It is not parents' math knowledge that impacts their own children's achievement in math. It's the parents' math anxiety. And so if we could begin to educate our parents just on the ideas, like, you've been through this math journey. You have this attitude that you're not great at math, but don't externalize that to your child. It's not your math knowledge that will support your child. It's your math anxiety that actually hinders your child. So if we can mask that anxiety and just be supportive of our children and our students, then they're much more likely to succeed in math.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: That's really great because, as a parent in general, I really like to be cognizant of even just my biases or my own anxieties and experiences and not passing those on to my children. So what do you recommend parents do to not do that with math. You know, how do they kind of put that math anxiety that they may have, or those negative experiences and put that aside and really try to encourage their children to approach math with a positive lens?

Eugenio Longoria Sáenz: When you, you actually, in asking that question, you surfaced an experience I left out in my math journey line, which is my mom trying to teach me fractions.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: I wanna hear this.

Eugenio Longoria Sáenz: And it was a painful experience. Because

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Now it's coming back from me. Oh no.

Eugenio Longoria Sáenz: But it's very vivid and I'll use this sort of little anecdote to speak to, to your question. Because it was both extremely positive to have my mother involved in my education. But then also in hindsight, when I think of that experience more completely throughout my journey line, it's also a little bittersweet or actually quite sad, but I say it was painful, because my mom was trying to teach me fractions, and at this point I'm like in fifth or sixth grade, and obviously she learned, these math processes in Mexico, which is where my family is from, in a particular way. And they were teaching me how to do this in a different way in the United States.

So there was that, right, in school, I was looking at a particular set of examples. My mom was relying on her education to provide that support at home. And those two things, were worlds apart quite literally. Culturally worlds apart. So it created a lot of tension, and obviously I needed her help. She was the only one there to help me. My dad was working and I'm also competing against, seven other siblings for some attention or some support. So there were a lot of knocks on my head. I remember in fifth grade where she's like, don't you get it? and I'm like, oh Mom, I'm sorry. I don't. So math was painful both emotionally and physically.

But also in the bigger picture, it was the end of my mother's involvement in my math education. I would say, in that formal sense. I'll sort of dive into this a little bit later, because there's a whole world of math that we are forgetting when we talk about math, only in this way, which is that math is all around us. Every single day, my mom was an amazing cook. But in terms of your question, Kisha, about what can parents do, it's not just what parents can do, but it's also what can schools do to support parents in the education of their children around math.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Can you tell us more about that? Like what can schools do to better prepare families to engage in math activities with their kids?

Eugenio Longoria Sáenz: One of those things is invite families to the school, to observe how math is being taught in schools.

Because for example, if my mom had had that opportunity, she would've realized that math was being taught different than how she learned it. And maybe the impact would not have been that big because maybe she would not have relearned math, but maybe she would've had a little bit more patience and I would've gotten a little less knocks on the head.

And if schools, aren't inviting parents to observe math classrooms, maybe parents can be proactive right and reach out to schools and say, I'd love to observe a math lesson. It doesn't even have to be my own child, but maybe the same grade level just to get a sense of how I can support my child with math.

Another thing is libraries. Going back to your statement Helen about the focus is so strongly on reading that math and science, sort of through the pandemic, came to learn how valuable libraries are as community spaces. But the idea that like libraries, not just schools can host like math nights for parents and community members or even math hour where kids that need support. Another thing is that the families can do as a whole is, you know, if they already sort of have like game nights or movie night, which I know a lot of families do, maybe incorporating a math night into that repertoire. And what does that look like? Which becomes then the bigger question.

So this is where I'll tap into where math is all around us. Cooking with your kids. Taking a recipe and I've seen this as I stepped into this role, I observed the world, not through this math lens or this family math lens. I had a friend recently, I was invited over for like a little barbecue and he has a two-year-old son and they have two like a, an eight and 10-year-old daughter. And my friend with his son were making the salsa and they had green and red tomatoes. And he's telling his son to take the green tomatoes and throw them in the blender. Sorting is a math activity, especially in the early ages and it's a foundational math activity. So he was sorting tomatoes.

The little girls were helping their mother make a cake and they were cutting the recipe in half. In the context, they were just cooking, but they were talking about very clearly, if it was asking for a quarter cup of something, what is half of a quarter? And they were trying to figure these things out. If the recipe is asking for, just a weird example, for three eggs, right? What is half three, right. If you're cutting the recipe in half an egg and a half, but then an egg is kind of a weird thing to split in half, right?

When you're making then critical choices as well. You put in two eggs, you put in one egg how does that impact the recipe? And, and you tryand figure out for the world how to cut a raw egg in half. Right. But those kinds of things, right. Parents beginning to explore or look into their everyday lives and seeing the math that lives in all of that and exposing that very explicitly to their children, I think is another thing that parents can, can play a very important role that doesn't rely on math skill or math knowledge.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: I just taught my son how to play monopoly. And he’s counting money. He's in first grade and, we found, especially during the pandemic playing games in general, you're doing counting, it's a board game. But now we've graduated to counting money and getting change back for properties.

Helen Westmoreland: Go Ellington

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Go Ellington. So then I try to trick him and say like, you know, how much money do I need to give you back? And if he gets it wrong, you know, it's like, okay. Yeah, just a dollar, that's good. And he's like, wait a minute 10, $10. so we have a little bit of fun with that. But cooking has also been, I love that idea cooking has also been great.

Eugenio Longoria Sáenz: My, my father, we are an agricultural family, so he was always fixing things. And sometimes he'd ask me to help him. Talking about how painful it was to learn fractions, I was actually learning fractions from a very young age, because I would help my father, and he would ask for like a three eighth wrench or a one quarter.

Helen Westmoreland: Oh, wow.

And I was always curious, like, what is like, what is that? Right. It was not just the name of the tool. It was its metric capacity or measurement or something. And I remember him teaching me like, this is what one eighth is, and at a young age, like what? It looked like that it was a one, a dash and an eight, even though I didn't understand very concretely what this represented, I knew how to identify a fraction on a tool wrench. Math is literally everywhere. And if we could just help parents rediscover that and bring and highlight those experiences with math in their everyday lives for their kids. I think the anxiety begins to disappear around their own math knowledge, but also around their children's relationship with math.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Yeah. And not make it a thing. I love that. Mm-hmm

Helen Westmoreland: Eugenio, switch gears a little bit to talk about advocacy. And you've laid out a lot of really great strategies and some things that schools should be doing. What are you seeing at the Center for Family Math in terms of how families and community members are using their voice to either influence what’s going on with math instruction or making it more accessible so that they can help their kids. What are some strategies that you would recommend for our listeners, from an advocacy point of view?

Eugenio Longoria Sáenz: There's a lot of conversation around schools and parental engagement with schools. A lot of it has been politicized around what's appropriate or not appropriate to teach our families and math has in some cases fallen into that conversation. And I think that it's an opportunity for parents to play a key pivotal role in the advocacy of their own awareness of math education in schools.

I think if we could start there, that would be a good first step into building a larger platform for math education and math advocacy, by parents in their schools. Another thing that I would say is, from a policy perspective, it's just knowing and understanding the different benchmarks around math for like grade one, grade two, grade three, grade four, that's important. Because you also begin to anticipate, like, for example, like I'll just go back to the experience of my mom. If my mom had known that perhaps fractions would be the last experience, she could be a support teacher, I would say, at home, around my math education, if she had known earlier that fractions, would be sort of taught in fifth grade or what even came after that, maybe she would've had a better opportunity to just even advocate for herself as a parent. Because the experience was not only mine to live, it was also hers. And at that point she couldn't help me with English, because she hadn't learned English yet.

So math was one of those last areas where my mother was involved in my education. And that's the other thing math gets more and more difficult and that's a relative statement nonetheless, but something we've heard a lot from parents recently as well. Is that, there's a lot of focus around building tools and resources for parents to support their children in early math development. But as children get older, those resources become more and more scarce.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: That's true.

Helen Westmoreland: When the math gets harder.

Eugenio Longoria Sáenz: I think that's a big area for advocacy is for parents to come to expect from schools that you know, that this doesn't taper office kids get older, if anything, right. The resources should become more rich as kids get older. If my mom could have tapped into more resources, maybe she would've been with me through trigonometry in 12th grade. But it's unfortunate, and I missed my mom being my teacher in these ways. But those are the things that I've heard more recently in conversations with parents. And those are some areas where parents can build some advocacy around.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Mm-hmm I love that.

Helen Westmoreland: Well, you have given us so much today, our time just flew by. Before we go, if there is one thing that you really wanna leave with our audience as a takeaway or like really lift up for them what would that be?

Eugenio Longoria Sáenz: I think the biggest takeaway, and this is one of the areas of focus for the Center is to look for math everywhere around you. Math is life it's, it's right everywhere and the least expected places, and in a way that it is intriguing and fun that spurs creativity and curiosity. I think for me, one of the big takeaways for today would be to encourage parents to rethink their relationship with math. Mm. What was really helpful for me was diving into my math journey line, which we started this conversation with. I would strongly ask parents to reflect on their own math journey lines to understand their relationship with math. And then to just explore in the ways that math actually lives in every day in their lives, or is present every day in their lives and then utilize that as perhaps the new stepping stone in their own anxiety around math and also their relationship with their child and math.

Helen Westmoreland: Wonderful. And if folks wanna learn more about the Center For Family Math or your work, what are some websites or social media handles they should check out?

Eugenio Longoria Sáenz: Definitely check out, NAFSCE, so NAFSCE.com or you can, soon we will be launching our Center for Family Math website that will be coming in mid-October and she be fully up and running by mid-November. And that website will be familymath.org. So strongly encouraging parents to visit both the NAFSCE website, to learn about the center and its history, and then to visit the center's very own website, not only to sort of learn more about what family math is, but to become connected to math resources from our partners and allies all across the country. Believe it or not, there's an organization or an individual near you that is focusing on family math and it's a great opportunity for you.

Our website will be a good opportunity for you to connect to resources, not just around the country, but perhaps in your very own neighborhood.

Helen Westmoreland: Awesome, thank you.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: That is great. Thank you so much to, for coming on the show today.

Eugenio Longoria Sáenz: Thank you all. This was a wonderful opportunity.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Well to our audience listening. Thank you for joining us for more resources related to today's episode. Check out our website at notesfromthebackpack.com.