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How Tutoring Takes the Fear Out of Math Instruction

Why are numbers so intimidating to some students, and what can parents and teachers do to relieve these anxieties? The answer may lie in elementary math curriculum. A graduate degree like the Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction in Math Education can help teachers introduce new ways to teach math. Educators can set up their classrooms to encourage one-on-one assistance the moment a student gets confused, which can greatly reduce anxiety over time. Teachers can also alter their lesson plans to help nervous students without negatively affecting those who naturally love math.

The Young Student’s Brain

The Journal of Neuroscience conducted a study on third graders and math anxiety using functional MRI machines; scientists scanned third graders’ brains as they attempted math problems. Those intimidated by math showed activity in the amygdala — the part of the brain associated with fear — when the researchers asked the children to do math. This indicates that the children’s emotions took control, mentally blocking the students from attempting the problems.

Students without any such fear, however, showed no extra activity in the amygdala. The two different neurological reactions alerted researchers that fear of math is very real and that it should not be taken lightly. In fact, between 17 and 30 percent of elementary and middle school-aged children are reported to experience some sort of math anxiety. So, how can teachers adjust the elementary math curriculum to help nervous students deal with numbers?

One-on-One Lessons

Student engagement proved to be essential in overcoming anxiety. Every student in the study received specialized, one-on-one tutoring a few times a week over the course of eight weeks. While all of the children in the study performed better at math after two months, the nervous children's anxiety decreased by 20 percent, according to secondary MRI scans.

In this specialized tutoring regimen, when students became stuck on a math problem, tutors helped them work through the concepts in a positive and encouraging way. Each student learned that he or she had the ability to solve the problems.

Managing Fear

This approach to managing fear is nothing new. Usually called Exposure Therapy, the idea is simple: put a person in the middle of what he or she is afraid of. If a man is afraid of spiders, make him get close to a spider and see that they are essentially harmless. If a woman is afraid of heights, slowly expose her to higher and higher elevations until her fear abates. The researchers used this same approach with the children in the study; they plunged children into math problems, but the children could rely upon ready assistance to show them, first, that math could not harm them and, second, how to solve the problem in question.

Repeating this exposure helped the nervous children develop stronger feelings of control, in turn increasing student engagement and decreasing anxiety over time. The study demonstrates that it is possible for children intimidated by math to overcome their fears with a slight change in elementary math curriculum.

One-on-one tutoring can take the fear out of math for young students. Teachers must incorporate more one-on-one instruction into elementary math curriculum and even encourage outside tutoring for nervous students. A little assistance can go a long way, converting a phobia into manageable stress.

Learn about the UT Arlington online M.Ed. in Math Education program.


Neighmond, P. (2015, September 8). 1 Tutor 1 Student = Better Math Scores, Less Fear. Retrieved from

Oaklander, M. (2015, September 8). Tutoring Kids Who Fear Math Actually Changes Their Brains. Retrieved from

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