Maths Fear and Anxiety

Teachers and parents need to be aware of their role in the creation of maths anxiety. At times, I have seen students suffer massive debilitation because of it. One young lad, who had strong academic credentials and was expected to do well, go to a good university and have a strong academic future became so anxious that he required me to meet him outside the examination room before the exams, to talk him down to stay calm and to walk him in to the exam room. He then wanted me to be there to meet him when he came out, after the exam was over.

If we care about students fulfilling their potential, we have to acknowledge the existence of maths anxiety and do all in our power to help children to address it and to empower themselves with the tools and the confidence to be in control of their feelings about the subject.

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Resilience

Resilience is a critical attribute for any person to grow up to be a fully healthy, self-actualizing person. However, until recently, really relatively little was known about resilience – how important it is, what increases a person’s ability to grow up with a healthy level, what are the impacts of childhood trauma and stress on it?

There was a time when the prevailing ideas were that all stress was inherently bad and that children should go unburdened in every way possible. Far more importance was placed on boosting self image, by telling children positive things about themselves, praising them endlessly and avoiding talking about weaknesses or shortcomings. Today, many believe that the prevalent views of the self image movement has resulted in a generation of young people who struggle to handle feedback, who can’t take strain or stress and who believe that they should be praised for every little thing they do. These young people all too often come across as needy, overly dependent on extraneous motivation and incapable of handling pressure effectively.

In more recent times a new word has become a strong force in education, especially in the USA. That word is ‘Grit’, which to me is another name for resilience. Much of the work, received with mixed feelings by others in the education field, has come from writer and academic, Angela Duckworth. Here’s a TED talk in which she explains her viewpoint on the role of Grit. One of my favourite lines – “Grit is living life like a marathon, not a sprint.”

This concept is also tied to issues of perseverance and also Carol Dweck’s concept of Growth Mindset (see earlier writing on this blog). I believe that the more we acknowledge this, the more we realise how much education has been failing children when it asked nothing of them, failed to stretch them and didn’t make sure they followed through adequately. These are young people now moving in to the world of work believing that life should be easy, rewards should come to us simply for showing up and that failure is a reason to immediately back off/ give up or take the path of least resistance.

Somehow, persistence, sticking at things through difficult or challenging times, went out of fashion. There was some kind of notion that really smart people didn’t need to break a sweat – that sweating the tough stuff was for the plodders. The self esteem movement positively railed against anything that looked or felt like hard work in schools, claiming that this was harmful to the vulnerable developing child. Instead, they wanted us to praise every effort, however small. Out of this came many things including primary school sports days where nobody should be a winner or a loser, everyone got a medal and the key was turning up and participating, mass handing out of classroom stickers for everything and a reluctance to ask children to stretch.

For those of us right now enjoying the four yearly feast that is the Olympics, the question is simple – would any of those athletes even be there, let alone be winning without grit, perseverance, resilience or a growth mindset? I think the answer to that one is pretty clear.

There is an interesting additional aspect to this question. Some children, sadly, are subjected to levels of challenge, strife or stress inducing trauma or tragedy in their young lives that we may wish would not afflict any child. In the past, conventional wisdom suggested that it was almost inevitable that such children receiving an excess of challenges beyond all reasonable levels of grit, perseverance or resilience will almost inevitably carry scars and negative impacts. However, we always knew that despite this – there were individual cases of children who appeared to have shown enormous levels of grit to rise above the circumstances and to flourish later as adults. So, I was very interested to see that there’s been recent research in this area seeking to understand better individual levels of resilience and how some children appear to ride out levels of trauma that would be beyond the capacity of the vast majority.

Quartz – Children Need Some Stress in Their Lives

Reading this article, I’m left with the feeling that research still has a long way to go. However, we do appear to be at least a step or two closer to understanding how to help children achieve optimum levels of stress in their lives so that they are capable of building grit and resilience and also how to help children whose young lives are impacted by extreme negative events or trauma so that they have a better chance of riding them out and maintaining functional ability to fulfil their potential.

This is going to be a fascinating area to follow.

I Was Going To Write About Procrastination, But ……………………

….. no, I didn’t put it off. Or not too much!

Fast company and others in pursuit of the ever more efficient worker who can get more and more done in less and less time (without seeming to suffer any undue stress) are fond of writing articles with simple tips for overcoming procrastination, like this one;

Fast Company – 9 Realistic Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Stress Less

I think there’s nothing inherently wrong in suggestions such as; breaking a task down in to bits, taking baby steps, setting a deadline and getting competitive with yourself or having an accountability obligation to someone else. However, those ofus who have ever acknowledged our procrastination to ourselves and stopped to ask hard questions know there are two elements that are much less often talked about.

Firstly, in my experience people who procrastinate are rarely people who procrastinate on everything. Therefore, there’s a point at which tough questions need to be explored about the tasks that are being postponed and put off. Sometimes it can be that we need to really dig down and explore what’s happening at the unconscious level – there may be very valid reasons why we feel uncomfortable with a particular task. Issues of values misalignment come to mind. It could even be that there are aspects of the place, time or circumstances that make a person so uncomfortable that a normally dynamic, action-oriented person starts to hold back, withhold effort or procrastinate on taking actions where they feel the stress of doing something that is incongruent with their values. eople normally think of stress as a negative and unfortunate byproduct of procrastination. However, I’d suggest that sometimes the stress comes first and gives rise to the procrastination.

Secondly, what if procrastination is seen sometimes as our intuition’s way of saying, “Not yet.” That the task, if done now might lead to overly hasty actions that would be regretted later. Impulsiveness, action taken without enough research or evidence/ justification can be worse than no action. Sometimes we need to listen to our intuition and what it tells us. In such circumstances there could be very valid reasons to wait a while. Haven’t we all had the occasion when that burning issue that sits on our ‘To Do’ list for some time becomes a job that didn’t really need to be done and can simply be scrapped? As time moves along, yesterday’s burning issue may become today’s inconsequential matter.

So, in short, I’m making excuses for nobody here. However, let’s acknowledge that not all procrastination is bad. The starting point is honesty with ourselves to determine the right response.

Mindfulness – For or Against?

“What did people get before stress was invented?”

This was a joke I first heard some years ago, but always thought it certainly had a ring of truth about it. I find myself picturing a group of Neanderthal hunters who have spent a day and a half stalking a woolly mammoth. They begin to surround the animal. It’s jittery and restless as it senses danger. They have no body armour, little or no defence and only the most basic and rudimentary weapons. The hunters are starting to sweat, their heartbeats are raised. As they close in for the kill, suddenly the leader of the tribe calls all together, gets them to sit down in a circle and informs them to, “focus on your breathing, and be fully here, right now.” In the meantime, the woolly mammoth wanders away to safety.

In today’s equivalent ‘hunting’ environment, all employers would like their employees to be less stressed, to be able to focus well on their work, to not let conflicts derail their efforts and to work together in the most efficient ways as effective teams. In pursuit of these goals it’s inevitable that managers and leaders will search around for the next ‘silver bullet’. There is an all round sense that so much more could be achieved (so much more profit made), if we could just make the imperfect human beings somewhat less imperfect!

There is no doubt at all that when it comes to attempts by organisations to improve their people, the current flavour of the day is Mindfulness. You would be hard pushed to go through any magazine or leaderrship/ personal development shelf in a bookshop without seeing plenty of publications on the subject. It can sometimes seem like everyone’s talking about it. Now, you can call me an old cynic, but that alone is reason enough for me to feel the need for at least a bit of doubt and questioning. Is it all that it’s claimed to be? Is it really a panacea for workplace stress? Is it going to give us happier workers, more capable of tackling the pressures of their work to high standards? Some cynics would say, instead of advocating Mindfulness for employees to handle stress better, we should create less reasons for them to feel stressed in the first place (conflicting instructions, changes in deadlines, unfulfilled commitments and promises etc.)

At times when I read and hear about mindfulness I am reminded of the work of Mihalyi ‎Csikszentmihalyi on ‘Flow’, that I first read over 15 years ago. This is the idea that things become effortless when you’re working in the moment, engrossed in a task for which you have the requisite skills. It strikes me that flow and workplaces today are a challenge. Whilst an individual may reach flow states when working on a task alone, how many of us work alone for any length of time. Once you bring in all the ambiguities associated with interruptions, other people’s agendas and conflicting priorities it may become impossible to achieve any kind of flow state. Maybe this is really the root source of all that we call workplace stress. In which case, Mindfulness won’t make it go away, reduce it or solve the problems it contributes to inefficiency and under achievement. The best it can do is enable to stop and smell the flowers, maybe putting others’ actions, communication etc. in to a little better perspective.

I do buy some benefits, but not in some sort of cookey ‘flavour of the day’ kind of way. Maybe that’s just me. When the trendy set moved on from NLP, I’ve continued to explore it, to test and experiment with the many ideas encompassed within (that’s for another blog post on another day!). For example, I downloaded a mindfulness bell reminder to my mobile phone and tablet. It chimes at random times through the working day. When I hear it, it causes me to stop for a second, check what I am doing at the moment and ask myself the question whether I’m doing the right/ best thing at that time. If I’m not comfortable i shift to a new task. In that sense, i see it as a useful time management tool.

In the school group where I was in Delhi, a gong would sound over the tannoy system twice during the school day. It was a wonderful, soothing sound. The standard practice was that wherever you were, whatever you were doing, you stopped, focused on your breathing for a couple of seconds and then proceeded with your normal activities after it finished. We saw definite calming of the children, improvement of focus in lessons and less aggressive behaviour.

By my reckoning, those are benefits worth having.

So, I was interested to come across this article recently that shares some scientific discoveries about what is going on chemically when people practice mindfulness and conjectures about why those could be beneficial:

Harvard Business Review – Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain

There’s an interesting debate that goes on in most countries when it comes to workplace training and professional development. There are many who believe that whilst the organisation/ employer can legitimately ‘enforce’ training related to the technical skills of the job a person does, they draw the line when the training is about changing or influencing them as a person. The alternative argument is that work today is so entwined with the rest of our lives that it is necessary for us to strive to be the best we can be in all the roles in our lives – not just the workplace, because we cannot isolate one role or domain from the others. If we are unfulfilled and frustrated in aspects of our health, personal relationships or some other part of life we’re not going to be able to perform at our best in our workplace.

As I suggested earlier, not everyone is ready to jump on the Mindfulness bandwagon or to welcome it as a panacea for all workplace ills.

Here are two recent articles that focus on the doubts, on the potential negatives;

Huffington Post – Is Mindfulness Harmful?

Fast Company – The Downside to Mindfulness Practices at Work

Ultimately, the personal development ‘industry’ is there to make money. Telling the world that what you taught last year is still the best thing to be doing today doesn’t pay. So, we need to be discerning about ‘flavour of the month’ solutions. When we find things that work for us, individually or collectively to be “my best me”, I believe what’s more important is to build the practice in to our habits and keep it there for the longer term – not to pick it up, do it, benefit, but then drop the habit because something new and shiny comes across the radar. In that, I believe Mindfulness practices can be a useful part of our long term habits.