You Don’t Hate Math: Social-Emotional Learning Strategies for Teaching Math

You Don’t Hate Math: Social-Emotional Learning Strategies for Teaching Math

Student contemplating a math equation

“I hate math.” As educators, chances are we have heard this sentence many times before from students (and maybe even adults).

Heck, we may have uttered these words ourselves.

Can you think of another content area that elicits a stronger negative response than math?

The truth is:

We don’t hate math. We hate how math made us feel.


Young student overwhelmed by math

If we were to dig really deep, we would find that an integer didn’t steal our lunch money and we were never bullied by an exponent. So why do some of us feel so strongly about this subject?

Chances are that the methods and materials that were used to help teach you math were unsuccessful. When we are not good at something, it makes us feel dumb.

Can you think of a more stressful way to learn a content area than standing up at board while the eyes of your peers (and your love interest) watch silently as you stress out over a multi-step math problem?

Check out Infobase’s SEL Toolkit for resources to empower educators, parents, and students!

Table of Contents

Emotion and Cognition Are Linked

If doing a math problem literally activates our “fight or flight” response, we are not going to enjoy it. In fact, we may even say that we hate it.

Many math standards ask that students solve real-world and mathematical problems by working effectively with peers; formulating, communicating, and critiquing arguments; and persevering through difficulty. All these mathematical practices require students to collaborate with others, self-regulate, and make decisions, also known as social and emotional learning (SEL) skills.

Here are a few ways that SEL competencies can help students to develop stronger mathematics skills.

Remember: We support students to think mathematically when we focus on the process, not just the end result.


Ask students how they feel about math using an inventory or survey.

Routinely provide authentic feedback and ask questions that help students reflect on their own strengths and interests—e.g., “I can tell you’re really enjoying this puzzle/problem. Can you tell me what about this puzzle/problem made you feel so excited/happy?” Or, “I can tell you’re really proud of how you did on this project. What about this are you most proud of?”

See connections between current tasks and the student’s personal interests. For example, if a student likes baking, highlight the use of measurement. Or, if a student is into video games, explain that numbers are used in the coding to create games.

Encourage a growth mindset. Routinely tell students authentic reasons why you feel happy/optimistic for them and their future, including your optimism about their ability to succeed in a career in math, science, or technology. Encourage conversations about how they feel learning math will contribute to their success in the future.

And, remind them: mistakes grow our brains!

Self-Management: Monitor Math Stress

Once students identify their feelings around math, we can now take steps to help them manage their stress.

Support your students to see ways that they can help themselves during a challenging problem. It might be pausing, taking a short break, going to another section, or asking for help.

Helping students manage their stress around math is developing the lifelong skills of perseverance and how to effectively cope when we’re having a difficult time.

Getting stuck on math problems, believe it or not, is actually a great time to practice mindfulness. Your students might simply need a moment to “reset,” and taking a few deep breaths is one of the most effective ways to do so (no additional accessories required!)

Social Awareness: Make Math Fun!

Read stories about clever protagonists who used math to solve problems, or about actual mathematicians, and discuss how they felt and why they took certain actions or behaved the way they did. Have students consider how they would feel in similar scenarios.

For example, highlight one of the greatest space operations in U.S. history: students can learn about the African-American women working for NASA in the 1960s who solved complex mathematical equations by hand. (Hidden Figures, anyone?)

Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson, mathematician

Relationship Skills: Math Is a Team Effort!

Allow students to take on math problems together with a partner or on a team.

Give students authentic feedback anytime they work well with others or resolve conflicts peacefully. Positively reinforce specific behaviors by thanking students whenever they listen well, and tell them specifically what they did well. Validate, validate, validate.

Develop speaking and listening skills (e.g., how to ask questions, how to listen well, and how to effectively seek help when one doesn’t understand academic content) and the ability to collaborate to solve problems.

Also, encourage students to praise one another when they persevere through challenging math problems. Let’s see high fives all around (number pun intended)!

Decision-Making: Make Math Student-Centered

Use reasoning strategies to reflect on choices and goals as a way of developing strong decision-making skills.

Posing simple “would you rather” questions to students helps give them voice and choice, and encourages decision making.

“Would you rather work in pairs or in groups?”

Then, you can incorporate “would you rather” scenarios into doing math problems.

“Would you rather earn $100 a week or $425 a month?”

At the end of the day, students don’t have to be “good at math” to be validated for their effort, participation, and collaboration.

Check out our FREE webinar “Using Emotional Intelligence to Decrease Staff Turnover” with SEL & Beyond’s Trisha DiFazio and Allison Roeser!

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About the Authors

Trisha DiFazio

Trisha DiFazio is an education consultant for Teacher Created Materials (TCM) and a former adjunct professor in the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California (USC). Trisha was also a contributing author on TCM’s Language Power: Building Language Proficiency series as well as Creating Social Emotional Learning Environments. She is passionate about empowering teachers and students around social and emotional learning as well as Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching. Ms. DiFazio holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Lake Forest College with a double concentration in English and Spanish, a Master of Arts in Teaching from National Louis University, an ESL Endorsement from Dominican University, and International TEFL Certification from the International Teaching Center in Madrid, Spain. As a result of studying with instructors from UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), Trisha has experienced firsthand how practicing mindfulness contributes to one’s overall health and sense of well-being.

Allison Roeser

Allison Roeser is an education consultant, author, and leadership coach. She holds a Master of Health Science (MHS) degree from Johns Hopkins University, Professional Coach Certification (PCC) from the International Coaching Federation, and is an Academy Licensed Trainer (ALT) with the Academy for Coaching Excellence. Ms. Roeser has almost two decades of experience working with leaders in education. She is passionate about child welfare and social change. She is also a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), a program that advocates for foster care youth in San Francisco. Previously, Allison served as Deputy Director at Westat, a research organization where she directed studies focused on health and education. Allison is also co-founder of SEL&Beyond, an organization dedicated to providing SEL professional development and coaching for educators, parents, and students.

For more strategies and tips, follow the authors on Twitter @SELandBeyond, contact them at

Also, check out their book:
Social-Emotional Learning Starts with Us: Empowering Teachers to Support Students