A Look Into The Very Real Issue Of Math Trauma

December 3, 2019by Heather Linchenko0


What is it about math that gives it so much power…

    • to make kids feel inadequate and insecure about themselves, and
    • to cause wounds to self-worth so big that the effect lasts into adulthood.

That is a LOT of negative power.

Our being in the business of solving these precise traumas puts us in a unique position to hear an endless supply of stories. All people have to do is hear briefly what we’re up to and they’re eager to tell us their own math trauma story, often accompanied with deep emotion.

So…if you feel alone in how much math affected your own well-being or how worried you may be about your child, we want you to know that we understand and feel deeply for you. This issue affects more people than you can imagine.

We’re left to wonder, why-oh-why have we ignored this problem as a society for so long—for generations!—when so much damage to self-worth is being done??? It makes us just that much more thrilled to be exactly where we are, doing exactly what we’re doing.

I want to talk about each of these math trauma aspects in turn.



The subject of math is a hotbed for labels. Growing up, I happened to be categorized as one of the “smart” kids simply because I did well at math, and that was because I happened to do well at that thing called memorizing. (We’ll skip right over the fact that I was no good at learning, only working the system.)

I saw a lot of the math trauma around me at the time and was aware of the negative labels many kids took on but I didn’t relate to it, that is, not until I was in college taking a French class.

The teaching style in this class was different than anything I had yet encountered and suddenly *I* was the dumb one. I was so confused at first (Wait a minute; I’m supposed to be smart!), then I felt sad that I couldn’t keep up with everyone (What is wrong with me?? Am I stupid or something?), then I got angry (There is no way even possible, no matter how hard I try, for me to keep up!).

I remember folding my arms and sliding down in my chair and though I remained physically present, simply checking out of the class. I felt ashamed of myself, mad at the students who were doing well, and hateful at my teacher for…I don’t know, existing!

Then I remembered.

I thought back on the body language of kids in my grade, middle and high school whose bodies and faces looked just like mine did right then. Now, I related to those feelings and my heart poured out to every single one of them. It is NO FUN TO FEEL DUMB!!!

Reminding myself that I’d gotten high honors in school, I understood that I must not actually be dumb. Since the other students in my French class were doing far better than I was—many of them much younger than I was and behaving flippantly, not serious students at all—brought to my view that I was not actually any smarter than they were (as I had previously supposed). This was healthy learning for me.

Next I thought, What does “smart” and “dumb” even mean, anyway?? Could it be that there is no such thing??

After some contemplation, I determined that it must all come down to teaching style and design.

At this conclusion, there sprang up in me an intense desire to one day develop a training system so that no person learning a language ever had to feel as I was feeling. My cogs were turning already and from this moment on, I began collecting and experimenting on teaching/learning philosophies toward this eventual goal.

The result? After 20+ years of this focus, a whole new teaching style emerged that works beautifully for all kids. We called this revolutionary approach “Learning Unleashed.” Surprisingly, all of my effort ended up not in a language program but in a system for teaching math! This happened organically because as I home schooled my children, math was the biggest, most dreaded subject for us all.

For the sake of kids—and we parents who care so much about them!—we are intent on spreading this teaching method as widely as possible. (We’ve written a book to this end. It’s found on our website and details each of the Learning Unleashed philosophies in detail.)

We hope next to create a reading program (who knows, maybe someday a language program, too!) around this Learning Unleashed model. We hope that our passion and effort plays a part in improving the current culture of education and even parenting.



There was another compelling thought from my French class experience: I realized how this feeling of “I can’t do it; I can’t keep up,” could change the trajectory of a whole life! I wondered with soberness if the lack of belief those discouraged kids had in themselves might have altered their lives dramatically. I could see that it truly could have.

Never again did I want anyone, ever again, to question their worth!

As part of this quest, I began to notice something interesting. It started with a friend of mine I thought was brilliant—so creative and so organized and just chock full of talent. But she kept making comments here and there about how she wasn’t very “smart” or “quick” or that she was a “slow learner.” It was a steady drip of comments, like a faucet with a leak! This made absolutely no sense to me! I could see no evidence whatsoever to support her insecurities. Finally, I asked her, “Why in the world do you believe you’re not smart?? Where does this feeling come from??”

It turned out that she “didn’t do very well in school”…and soon added, “…well, mostly in math.”

Seeing this as the root of her nagging self-doubt, I began asking questions of others who likewise tended to self-deprecate. You guessed it; labels derived from the person’s early math experience was a common cause of this!

As mentioned before, these kids-now-adults often feel to tell us their stories. Many of them appeared to be very successful adults after all, but with emotional scars from math.

Sometimes the “I’m not smart” label is self-imposed just from the way math makes the child feel; other times, it’s a fellow student, and more often a teacher that said something that got stuck in the child’s psyche making them doubt their abilities from that time on (GRRRR!!!!). We’ve been so surprised to hear that many teachers told their student outright, “You’re not good at math.”

After a presentation we made about MathHacked to a group of business executives, we had a person seek us out after the meeting and tell of his experience. He had a teacher tell him he wasn’t good at math when he was just a young boy and he said that this haunting label followed him all through grade school, high school, college and he almost didn’t go to grad school because he just didn’t believe he could do it. He struggled for such a long time over this issue before he finally pushed past his insecurities and decided to at least try.

Well, he not only accomplished grad school, he received some of the highest grades in his program. He said he couldn’t have been more surprised. By the time we met him, he was a very successful professional and just in the telling of this story, his eyes became wet with emotion. Not only was he reliving those feelings, he was genuinely grateful and appreciative for what we were doing for kids.

Here’s a message we got from a gentleman, now a grandpa, who saw our system online:

“I was one of the dumb kids when it came to math. I can completely relate to what you are describing. It took me years to realize that I loved to learn and I was a lot smarter than I ever thought I was! I got all choked up when I saw your program this morning! God bless you and the MathHacked Girls!!!!” ~Ben Smith

One woman who came up to us at a vendor table after a homeschool conference said she had a form of PTSD [Post-traumatic stress disorder] due to her early math experience. We laughed but she didn’t laugh with us; she was dead serious. She was willing to do just about anything to save her kids from going through the math trauma that she experienced. In fact, this was the main reason she had chosen to homeschool her children!

Honestly, I could go on and on with stories, but hopefully you will see from the few given here that if your child is currently dealing with an “I’m not smart” label because of math, that you are not alone. I’m also hoping to persuade you not to allow such a negative label to persist in your child. This alone can be the reason for a child’s resistance, not to even mention the lasting effects we’re discussing here.

We also want to assure you that there is something that can be done to avoid and even turn that label around. I’ve seen it happen countless times and without exception. This sounds like an exaggeration, I know, but it is true. And the cool thing is, it takes only about 15 minutes a day of your time working in very happy ways with your child. This will feel good to both of you in our busy and often disconnected world.

Now, I never wanted to run a business. It is not my personality and was never my dream. But after seeing enough parents struggle with this issue and knowing all that while that I had a solution to help them—and being urged by so many to make this solution generally available—here we are, my sister and me, both grandmas, doing this crazy thing together at this stage of our lives. We’ve become “thegals@mathhacked.”

And guess what? We’re having fun and feeling fulfilled because we get to help children and parents feel their worth. This much IS our dream!

Avatar photo

Heather Linchenko

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *