Math? Nobody said there’d be math!

A Winnipeg professor has penned a children’s book on “math anxiety” to acknowledge the overwhelming feelings many experience when faced with fractions, long division and numbers in general, and offer strategies to overcome them.

“Math anxiety is something that’s totally preventable and it’s totally manageable and can be fixed — but, people have to know what to do and, basically, be aware of it,” said Sheri-Lynn Skwarchuk, an academic at the University of Winnipeg who researches early childhood education and development.

Bonded by a shared concern about the stigma students who struggle with the subject face, Skwarchuk and Erin Maloney, a cognitive psychologist based out of the University of Ottawa, co-authored a new book to spread awareness about the issue.

Peyton and Charlie Challenge Math tells the story of two young students: a young boy who feels anxious about working with numbers, and a confident peer who is eager to help her friend learn strategies to solve math problems.

The 30-page title was written in rhymes published in an accessible font and features colourful illustrations.

As a complementary resource, ToyBox, a U of W hub founded by Skwarchuk to create and publish free educational activities, has released strategies to address math anxiety.

The education professor said she has dedicated her career to helping children build confidence in themselves, and this project is no exception. Such fears — be they surrounding disappointing a parent or otherwise — are often the root of anxiety, Skwarchuk said, adding self-assurance is key in order to overcome math anxiety.

In vice-principal Lauren Mitchell’s experience, math causes students more stress than any other subject.

“In some kids, it might manifest itself in frustration; kids get frustrated and then sometimes, go to the avoidance or shutting down (stage),” said Mitchell, an educator at Niakwa Place School who previously worked as a divisional instructional support co-ordinator who helped teachers with numeracy lessons.

Mitchell noted COVID-19 restrictions have created additional challenges because group work and manipulatives were discouraged in the early days of the pandemic, so students didn’t have the same opportunities to engage in the collaborative and hands-on learning that can often help them master concepts.

The school leader’s advice to colleagues and caregivers dealing with personal or student math anxiety is to embrace a growth mindset.

“A message that’s really important for kids in math is that mistakes help you learn. Mistakes are not a bad thing and I think that’s something that kids sometimes get hung up on,” she added.

Maloney, an associate professor of psychology and Canada Research Chair in academic achievement and well-being, echoed those comments.

The researcher flew to Winnipeg last week to promote her latest insights and run a workshop, in partnership with ToyBox, out of the Louis Riel School Division board office. Roughly 75 people, many of them parents with math anxieties of their own, showed up to hear her ideas.

Maloney told the crowd about the importance of helping children do focused breathing to calm down, practice familiar problems so they feel assured before moving on to more complex concepts, and emphasizing the word “yet” after a student says they do not understand something.

She warned about adults passing their worries down to children and against labelling anyone as being “bad at math.” A student needs to learn coping skills early on so issues do not compound and ultimately limit career options because they have avoided math throughout their schooling, the academic said.

“We used to think math was something you could or couldn’t do — now we know that it’s something everybody can do,” she said, adding anyone can be a “math person,” citing the fact environmental factors rather than genetic ones affect one’s ability to master concepts.

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press