How Timed Math Worksheets Cause Anxiety and Erode Learner Confidence

How Timed Math Worksheets Cause Anxiety and Erode Learner Confidence

“If the child is not learning the way you are teaching, then you must teach in the way the child learns.” ~ Rita Dunn

We have it in our minds that forcing children to learn through rigid, rote, pressured means is both useful and kind. It is neither. Children do not learn by sitting at desks for hours on end with a pencil and note/textbook, but rather by moving, exploring and engaging with the realities of life.

There are countless ways children can learn math other than with the inappropriate, and dare I say, cruel means of timed math worksheets. They can play with blocks, measure ingredients with their imaginary baking set, or simply count clouds in the sky.

Research shows that children learn math naturally through play, and when they do, they simultaneously develop other important life skills:

“In the 1970s, the German government sponsored a large-scale comparison in which the graduates of 50 play-based kindergartens were compared, over time, with the graduates of 50 academic direct-instruction-based kindergartens. Despite the initial academic gains of direct instruction, by grade four the children from the direct-instruction kindergartens performed significantly worse than those from the play-based kindergartens on every measure that was used. In particular, they were less advanced in reading and mathematics and less well adjusted socially and emotionally.” ~ Peter Gray, Early Academic Training Produces Long-Term Harm, via Psychology Today 

Here is a story from a concerned parent to strengthen the argument that timed math worksheets may do more harm than good:

My son, Cameron, possesses a voracious appetite for learning and an innovative approach to problem-solving. He was identified in early grade school as a highly-capable learner and we happily placed him in our school district’s gifted program to provide him a more rigorous and unconventional educational experience.

Timed math worksheets were introduced by third or fourth grade as the very first thing students did during their school day. I watched my son’s attitude toward school, and his confidence as a learner, quickly and steadily decline. He made sweeping generalizations about being “stupid” and “no good at math,” and even suffered loss of appetite, stomach pain and diarrhea on many school mornings. 

I reached out to his teacher about Cameron’s anxiety and upset about timed math and she did two things to address his challenges: one, she gave him a minute more to complete the worksheets; and two, she sent him home with more timed math worksheets for additional at-home practice. 

Not at all helpful. 

I knew Cameron could accurately and deftly calculate quantities and divvy up a dizzying array of real-world objects, LEGO and money being two of his preferred media. I consulted friends whose hi-cap kids experienced similar anxieties with reading, processing information, etc. and was referred to a wonderful specialist.

I took Cameron to see her a few times over the summer— mostly on my own dime— and in the course of a few weeks, he learned about his brain’s strengths and challenges around processing and “dumping” batches of numbers. He played and had space to creatively address his unique learning style, helping to train his brain to see timed math as a variation of his mental LEGO fractions or money summations. He also recognized that although his brain’s processing style isn’t built for timed worksheets, it’s malleable and really amazing! 

With this new insight and assistance, he’s been able to accommodate the timed math into a broader learning framework without the anxiety and distress it used to create. He’s “let go” of the association with slower processing and “being dumb at math.” 

It’s a win for Cameron, and yet I still feel stymied by the hi-cap program’s insistence on keeping timed math assessments in the curriculum. Very few kids have the opportunity to visit a learning/brain specialist for consultation and play therapy. They suffer in silence as their confidence is steadily eroded by antiquated rote exercises that do very little to engage and creatively stimulate their unique brains. Parents and teachers need to do better as partners in recognizing and promoting better methods of unleashing our children’s intellectual and social potential. 


Bottom line: we still feel the need to control children’s learning far more than necessary, and in doing so, get in the way of it. We must now learn to stand back and allow learning to happen. Children are intrinsic learners, after all. They learn simply by being their natural curious selves, and doing what brings them joy.

“Stand aside for a while and leave room for learning, observe carefully what children do, and then, if you have understood well, perhaps teaching will be different from before.” ~ Loris Malaguzzi 

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Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults

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