What is Academic Wounding and How to Heal 
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Out of the corner of my eye I could see her small frame shrinking. She looked down and twirled her pencil in both hands. We had been working on a math problem about fractions for some time. A frustrated expression came across her face as she disengaged from solving the problem.
Maya didn’t have to utter the words. I could feel them as her eyes glazed over. “I’m dumb. There’s no point. I’ll never be good at math.”
Slowly I turned my gaze to her and not the problem in front of us. Our eyes connected and I shared with her my frustrating experience with math. She smirked at my story as if to convey, “Yeah, that won’t ever be me.”
Right then, I knew Maya had been hurt. She had internalized an assumption she would never be good at math. This wasn’t good.
She is wounded academically.
When I burn my hand, I can see the wound and immediately leap into action to get on the path to recovery. I have a cold bag of flour waiting in my freezer to bring relief and pull the stinging sensation out of the burn.
But other wounds like internal bleeding are hard to find. Sometimes symptoms take weeks to surface before a doctor can locate the source and prescribe the necessary treatment.
The wound Maya received is difficult to identify as its symptoms are not as apparent and can take years to develop. It lies deep inside of the mind and can be particularly difficult to find as this wound doesn’t care what race, ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic background you have.
Knowing what it looks like will help you find and heal the wound.
What is Academic Wounding?
It took a few weeks of observing Maya before I realized we were dealing with a bigger issue. She was deeply hurt and I knew we needed to get some of those feelings out into the open. After years of trying to be good at math, she had failed too many times to count.
David Berg provides insight into how academic wounding proves to be dangerous, “Frequently, these students do not know if their solutions are right or wrong. They cannot trust their own mathematical problem-solving ability. This horrible feeling and experience, if not addressed appropriately, may lead to academic wounding.
Academic wounding is the internalization of the personally based myth of the pre-conception of failure: “I hate math,” “Math is boring,” “I’m dumb, I’m stupid. I’ll never be good at math.”
Academic wounding can affect all students, with or without learning disabilities. If not appropriately addressed, academic wounding may persist indefinitely into adulthood until such time as the individual repeatedly experiences authentic and indisputable success.”
Academic wounding looks like…arms not working
My youngest son often finds his limbs don’t work when math gets hard. What may seem like pouting about math is a sign a wound inside is present. He may be distracted and spending mountains of time avoiding math because it hurts too much to do the work.
My son telling me his arms don’t work is a cry for help, not him asking for a swift kick in the pants (even though my gut feeling is telling me to follow through with the kick).
It is his way of saying, “I have tried. I am doing the best I can and yet this still isn’t working.”
As a tutor, I also play therapist as I know emotion plays a large role in student success. Maya had experienced over 3 years of frustration with math in spite of all the effort she put in at home. It wasn’t for lack of trying. She feels hopeless and mom is scrambling for solutions.
Academic wounding feels like…shame
When you are academically wounded, you feel you are flawed. Something inside of you must be off because you don’t get it. These feelings can fester to create shame which does not help you move forward but continues to pull you away because of discomfort.
It’s natural to want to run the other way from a math problem that feels out to get you. Your brain is wired to run from pain.
The thought of being rejected one more time by a math problem hurts too much. Your cheeks burn with embarrassment as you think about stammering through the steps you can’t seem to remember.
To protect yourself, you disconnect.
How to heal from academic wounding
Failure is part of life. What is important is knowing how to bounce back from failure. The following steps are a great starting point for academic wound recovery:
1 – Build Rapport
David Berg shares our relationship with our child is key, “establishing genuine rapport is essential because [your child] need[s] to feel they have nothing to prove, they are fine the way they are: there is nothing broken that requires fixing, and they have the intelligence to be successful.
Building rapport with your child requires you to be vulnerable. Share your stories of shame. Your child didn’t see how you have developed into the adult you’ve become. Reflect back on how you handled failure and possibly how you did not handle it well.
How did you bounce back from a failed test?
How do you keep moving forward when it got hard?
2 – Journal
To open the lines of communication with Maya, I chose to start a math journal. At the beginning of our tutor sessions, I would give her a prompt at which we would write separately in a journal. I also set the timer for 5 minutes as many of my students don’t like writing either.
I asked Maya this leading question:
Tell me about a time when you knew you weren’t good at math.
Before I could even set the timer, Maya’s pencil fervently scribbled in her journal. She knew the exact moment.
In third grade, her class was working on memorizing math facts. The teacher implemented a program where students earned a scoop of ice cream for each math fact family memorized. At the end of the year, a party was thrown to reward the children for their work with scoops of ice cream.
Maya only earned three scoops while most of her class had all 12.
The wound cut deep.
She spent hours practicing with flashcards and doing games with her mom, but the facts would not stick. In her words, “that’s when I knew.”
My heart sunk as I heard her story. I know the exact program she referenced. The program was not meant to hurt but rather inspire students to work hard. No teacher knowingly would do this to their student.
I immediately shared my story. We were vulnerable together.
3 – Practice Empathy
Rapport requires you to have empathy. After journaling, feel the pain with your child.
Don’t try to fix it.
Avoid the temptation to march into the classroom and give her teacher a piece of your mind.
Please don’t paint the silver lining to her story with comments such as,
“Look on the bright side Maya, you are a great writer. You’ll always have that gift. Not everyone is good at math.”
This bright side minimizes her feelings. Instead of making her feel better, her shame may deepen. Brene Brown sheds light on why we need to practice more empathy and not sympathy in this case.
4 – Successful Math Experiences
We can’t continue to do more of the same math and expect different results. Your child needs a different approach if the way their teacher has taught math hasn’t helped things to click.
Math can feel too abstract and not applicable, but math has very real life applications. Show your child the connection between math and real life. Get them involved with baking or building something with their hands.
Invest in a tutor with multisensory math training. These tutors know how to make math real and tangible for your child. Going back to the basics and helping your child find success in one area will be key.
Ask your child, “What is one math fact family you wished you knew? Which one always pesters you during math problems?”
Next pull out every day objects to practice this set of math facts. For example, if your child is bothered by the 7 times tables, work on mastering just the 7’s.
Pull out some LEGO bricks and make towers of seven in one color.
Show me what 2 groups of 7 is with LEGO bricks.
If that’s 2 groups of 7, what is 3 groups of 7?
If that’s 3 groups of 7, what is 4 groups of 7?
Continue to work until you see your child building and breaking apart the groups of 7 to make the math facts with ease. Don’t wait to teach division.
Show me 21 divided by 7
What is 21 divided by 3?
Finally work in some fractions.
Show me 1/7 of 14
Involving the senses will help you child build new connections and find success in math.
Your call to heal the wounded
Opening the dialog with Maya was the first step to success. A few weeks later, I saw her in the corner of my eye writing happily in her math journal. Her face was soft and relaxed. My heart rejoiced when I heard her read her entry aloud, “When I got my test back from my teacher I freaked! This was the highest math score I have ever gotten. 85%”
It feels risky to talk openly with your child about her math struggles as it may bring back your own feelings of inadequacy. But the rewards are worth it.
If you’d like my help to start having successful math experiences with your child, email me or contact any of our preferred online math tutors. Let’s get on the path to healing.
Start the conversation today with this free download of math journal prompts.
Owner of Math for Middles
I’m the owner and creator of the math videos here at Math for Middles. I’ve tutored students for over ten years. When I am not creating here, you’ll find me down by the river with my family. You can read more about me here and how I once was a middle schooler too.