Combating Math Anxiety with Manipulatives

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Combating Math Anxiety with Manipulatives

During my traditional teacher training, I attended a math concepts class for teachers, and it was an eye-opening experience. Near the beginning of the semester, I paused to listen to conversations and to watch the reactions of fellow classmates only to discover that this class seemed more like a psychological experiment than math class. We were taught Mayan math using sticks, rocks and shells, out-of-the-box ways to add large numbers, and then handed colorful plastic bars meant to represent division of fractions. Future teachers began to panic and throughout the classroom were disgruntled rumblings of “I hate math,” or “this is so stupid.”  But that’s exactly what the instructor wanted us to do. We needed to understand what it was like to be a child learning concepts for the first time– befuddled, stumped and frustrated. Math can be challenging for many, and as adults we tend to associate it negatively if we once struggled as children learning it for the first time.

I personally love math and jump at the chance to use it in everyday situations, but I can honestly say that I am in the minority on that notion. A research study found that two-thirds of Americans loathe math, and only 7% of Americans had positive experiences while taking math classes Kindergarten through college levels (Jackson and Leffingwell, 1999)– alarming numbers considering the importance of mathematics and the critical role it plays in our everyday lives. This is called math anxiety and it’s a learned helplessness that causes one to perceive their personal math performance as unsuccessful. Math anxiety is a persistent fear and apprehension to anything involving math, and can seriously undermine an individual’s ability to acquire math skills needed for 21st-century careers. The study explains that in order to break the cycle, our schools and teachers need to address math anxiety by building math confidence in students during the early years as they initially learn math skills and foundations.

Educational research shows that the most valuable learning occurs when we actively construct our own knowledge rather than passively take in information. This is extremely true with math, in which mathematical understanding can be effectively accomplished through the use of hands-on manipulatives. Dr. Maria Montessori taught us the importance of manipulatives in education, and she designed several materials to help lower elementary students learn many math concepts. Researchers, philosophers and teachers agree that children need first-hand experiences related to math, interaction with other children and time to reflect on their experiences. Montessori education follows this pattern, and the result is students who show confidence and proficiency in mathematics when compared to traditional education methods which focus on teaching the procedure and the product with little explanation.

In the Montessori lower elementary classroom, the children are offered a variety of materials to manipulate and the opportunity to sort, classify, practice operations and explore relationships in order to construct their own concepts of mathematical knowledge.  These manipulatives allow students to move from concrete experiences with their hands to the eventual abstract reasoning of math concepts on paper. When our elementary students have hands-on objects to manipulate, they are taking the first solid steps to understanding math processes and operations. These experiences generate opportunities to explore their own questions, think about their world in alternative ways, and realize that there are multiple ways to solve problems, which is an essential strategy in mathematics.  In other words, the students are able to better answer the why’s of mathematics: i.e. why do we divide this number by this number? why do we carry a ten to the next place to the left in addition?

The use of manipulatives in the classroom sets the stage for a solid foundation for mathematical skills that students will use in the classroom, future careers and everyday life. Montessori students are taught to connect ideas and integrate their hands-on knowledge early on in their education, and therefore able to gain a much deeper understanding of mathematics. Instead of suffering from math anxiety and a lifetime of avoiding math, Montessori taught students have the math advantage in life.  As our students mature and move up in school, they have confidence to use math in the real world and relate math to their own lives, inspiring them to explore the big world of mathematics.


Furner, J. M. (2018). Using Children’s Literature to Teach Mathematics: An Effective Vehicle in a STEM World. European Journal of STEM Education, 3(3), 14. Retrieved from

Jackson, C. D. and Leffingwell, R. J. (1999). The Role of Instructor in Creating Math Anxiety in Students from Kindergarten through College. Mathematics Teacher, 92(7), 583-586.

Research on the benefits of manipulatives (n.d.). Retrieved December 9, 2009, from:

Seefeldt, C., & Wasik, B.A. (2006).  Early education:  three-, four-, and five-year-olds go to   School (2nd ed.).  Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education.


By Nikole Townsend
Elementary Support Teacher