Maths trauma can be healed

Maths trauma and earthquakes

Trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. Many people in my home town of Christchurch still suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of our earthquakes five or so years ago. I know I will never be the same again. The trauma began with the original terrifying experience of having the ground move in a way you never thought was even possible. It was perpetuated by over eighteen months of never knowing when the next earthquake (deceptively called aftershock) would hit. And the trauma still continues for many as they struggle to sort out their homes, and jobs, and their families. (Even now the thought of earthquakes can bring me to tears, and heavy machinery undertaking drainage work happening in my street is not helping.)

People might question if the impact of bad maths experiences can really be likened to the trauma people experience as the result of a series of earthquakes. I listened recently to a webinar about maths trauma, hosted by Global Math Department, and presented by Dr Kasi Allen. Math Trauma: Healing Our Classrooms, Our Students, and Our Discipline The webinar occurred in April 2016, but thanks to the amazing global maths community, it is still available and has had over 1000 views. Dr Allen calls herself a “math activist who studies math trauma and promotes teaching mathematics for social justice”. I see myself and the work we do at Statistics Learning Centre in that vein also.


Three students engrossed in a maths event

I have reproduced a few of the ideas in the webinar, but would recommend visiting it yourself to get the full value.

Dr Allen’s proposition is that what is commonly called math anxiety is probably better described as math trauma. She teaches preservice elementary school teachers. A watershed experience has been seeing people bolt from the room in tears, simply looking at the syllabus at the start of a maths course.

Too many people think they are not maths people

I am frequently told by people that they do not have a maths brain, could never learn maths, that they are not a maths person. I have had middle-aged women tell me of formative experiences that happened over fifty years previously that have shaped their relationship with mathematics. Recently I asked my Facebook friends both mathematically inclined and not so mathematically inclined about how they picture numbers. Time and again their responses included the statement that they are not good at maths.

Maths anxiety and trauma

The term “math anxiety” dates back to the 1950s and is still used today. There are decades of research into how math anxiety disproportionately affects students who are female, low income and non-white. What Dr Allen (and I)  found disturbing was that among college students, undergraduate education majors are the most maths anxious, both in terms of number and severity. These are the people who are entrusted with teaching mathematics to the next generation. Primary school teachers too often have an unhealthy relationship with maths – that is NOT their fault. They were taught in a way that did not work for them and they carry the burden with them.

Dr Allen suggests that maths trauma is a more fitting description than maths anxiety. Jo Boaler talks about people as having been maths traumatised. The negative experiences people have with mathematics, are described as painful and damaging. Traumatic events can be grounded in everyday life, and do not need to come from one catastrophic event. It is the subjective response that matters. Dr Allen gives the following definition:

“Math trauma stems from an event, a series of events, or a set of circumstances experienced by an individual as harmful or threatened such that there are lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and well-being in the perceived presence of mathematics.”

Healing teachers and students from maths trauma

Dr Allen has suggestions to help heal maths trauma. One suggestion is to acknowledge past negative experiences and their effects. We can listen and express sympathy and even apologise for the harm people have felt. We can provide opportunities for students to tell their maths stories. We can help them nurture their mathematics identities.

We also need to work on prevention of maths trauma. Classroom culture is important. Students need to feel safe and brave and they need to move. And we need to end traumatizing traditions. I have reproduced a screen shot of the slide about ending traumatizing traditions. Timed tests in mathematics have to stop. Now. Forever.


The question is, how do we (Statistics Learning Centre) help teachers to recover from maths trauma, so they can feel the fun and excitement that can be had in maths? Teachers matter for themselves, as well as for the good they can do their students. Maths educators need to be part of the solution and part of the prevention – to be maths activists. People are not born with maths trauma and it does not exist in all cultures. We need to do better.

Call for comment

So here is my question. Do you or someone you know suffer from maths trauma? Let me tell you now – it is not your fault. It is not their fault.
What needs to happen for you to feel better about maths? What needs to happen so that maths trauma can be eliminated from our schooling?

This entry was posted in statistics by Dr Nic. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dr Nic

I love to teach just about anything. My specialties are statistics and operations research. I have insider knowledge on Autism through my family. I have a lovely husband, two grown-up sons, a fabulous daughter-in-law and an adorable grandson. I have several blogs - Learn and Teach Statistics, and Building a Statistics Learning Community, are the main ones.

4 thoughts on “Maths trauma can be healed

  1. There has to be a balance in “grouping by ability/tracking”. Obviously a “cabbage class” is not a great idea but neither is boring the bright kids into mediocrity and disinterest.

  2. I can absolutely relate to this article, I was a victim of the general conviction that there are people that ‘are good in maths’ and those who are not. That’s why I tried to avoid mathematics as much as possible in high school. Much later in my Bachelor and Master, I discovered that mathematics and statistics are just a matter of exercising (and actually not as scary as commonly taught) and I discovered my passion for them! It is a pity that we don’t get this message from primary school on!

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