Expanding Your Math Comfort Zone

“It’s okay to just count ducks for a while.”

That’s a phrase you probably wouldn’t expect to hear one adult say to another, but in our office, every once in a while, it happens. Here’s the context:

An adult who is going back to school comes into our office for math tutoring. Many years ago, they got behind in math, became discouraged, and ultimately fell into the downward spiral of math avoidance. They said to themselves, “I’m just not a math person,” or “I’m just not smart enough for this,” and they disengaged completely. But now, because they’re going back to school, they have to reenter the world of math.

This person’s “math comfort zone” – the areas of math they feel good about – is probably very small, and stepping outside of that comfort zone brings back all the anxiety and self-doubt that made them quit math in the first place. So their initial goal should be to expand their math comfort zone so they can start engaging with harder and harder math. As they gain knowledge and skills, their sense of self-efficacy – and their confidence – will grow.

To do this, they have to return to wherever it is that they’re truly comfortable. That could be basic algebra, or multiplication facts, or even simple counting. Math is an upside-down pyramid, so it’s wise to build a strong foundation. From there, they put in lots of time and build up their confidence with repetition. They go from one topic to the next at their own pace, walking the mastery path for each one. They push their limits, but slowly and steadily. They also go back and review old things on a regular basis to make sure they don’t get forgotten. And their comfort zone expands gradually, encompassing more and more math as time goes on.

This isn’t just a tool for adults going back to school; students who are actively struggling with math in elementary, middle, or high school can also work on expanding their math comfort zones. Khan Academy makes it easy for anyone to work through a steady progression from counting to calculus. Oh, and one of the exercises Khan has for beginners is counting little cartoon ducks. If everything harder than that is too hard, that’s okay. You have to start from inside your comfort zone, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of if that’s counting ducks.

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