Math Therapy

How trauma affects the brain w/ Liesl McConchie

June 01, 2023 Vanessa Vakharia / Liesl McConchie Season 5 Episode 4
How trauma affects the brain w/ Liesl McConchie
Math Therapy
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Math Therapy
How trauma affects the brain w/ Liesl McConchie
Jun 01, 2023 Season 5 Episode 4
Vanessa Vakharia / Liesl McConchie

Last week's episode featured a deep dive with Vanessa into math trauma: what it is and how to avoid it. Today, brain expert Liesl McConchie joins her to explain the neurological science of trauma, debunk the myth of the "math gene", and discuss the hopeful promise of neuroplasticity.  And not to be all clickbaity, but Vanessa ends up sharing some pretty intense math trauma of her own...

About Liesl:  (Twitter, Website)
Liesl McConchie is an international expert on how the brain learns, and co-author of best-selling book Brain-Based Learning with Dr. Eric Jensen. With over 20 years of experience in education, Liesl bridges her knowledge of how the brain best learns with her experience of teaching math to create tangible strategies to support teachers and schools across the globe.

Links referenced:

Connect with us:

Topics discussed:

  • 1:52 What is brain-based learning?
  • 12:31 Neuroplasticity: a message of hope
  • 15:05 Myth of the “math gene”
  • 20:21 Epigenetics
  • 22:26 How math trauma actually works
  • 31:42 Classroom strategies for teachers
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Last week's episode featured a deep dive with Vanessa into math trauma: what it is and how to avoid it. Today, brain expert Liesl McConchie joins her to explain the neurological science of trauma, debunk the myth of the "math gene", and discuss the hopeful promise of neuroplasticity.  And not to be all clickbaity, but Vanessa ends up sharing some pretty intense math trauma of her own...

About Liesl:  (Twitter, Website)
Liesl McConchie is an international expert on how the brain learns, and co-author of best-selling book Brain-Based Learning with Dr. Eric Jensen. With over 20 years of experience in education, Liesl bridges her knowledge of how the brain best learns with her experience of teaching math to create tangible strategies to support teachers and schools across the globe.

Links referenced:

Connect with us:

Topics discussed:

  • 1:52 What is brain-based learning?
  • 12:31 Neuroplasticity: a message of hope
  • 15:05 Myth of the “math gene”
  • 20:21 Epigenetics
  • 22:26 How math trauma actually works
  • 31:42 Classroom strategies for teachers

[00:00:00] Liesl McConchie: Math trauma is rooted in either an isolated traumatic experience that the student has had, or a series of repeated traumas that have been building up over time. The way we heal from trauma is to create a safe space for people to explore their past experiences with math and simultaneously infuse it with new, joyful experiences. 

Show intro

[00:00:28] Vanessa Vakharia: Hi, I'm Vanessa Vakharia, aka The Math Guru, and you're listening to Math Therapy, a podcast that explores the root causes of math trauma, and the empowering ways we can heal from it.

Whether you think you're a math person or not, you're about to find out that math people don't actually exist. But the scars that math class left on many of us definitely do. Oh, and don't worry, no calculators or actual math were involved in the making of this podcast. 

Episode Intro

[00:00:55] Vanessa Vakharia: So fun fact about today's guest, no, seriously. Just take a minute to understand what I'm about to say to you. She has not uttered a single F word since eighth grade. So like for 30 years. And I felt like I had to come in hot with this juicy piece of news because guys, today's episode is one of the only episodes that does not contain a single iota of salty language. Can you believe it? Very exciting stuff. Rip those earmuffs off of your kids and tell 'em to tune in. 

 Today I'm chatting with the incomparable Liesl McConchie, an international expert on how the brain learns and co-author of bestselling book, Brain-Based Learning. This is our fifth season, and until now I've never actually spoken to anyone about the relationship between math, learning, math, trauma, and our actual brains. And today I am speaking with the best of the best. Liesl blew my flippin' mind, see what I did there, during this convo, and I know you're going to be blown away too. Let's do this.

What is brain-based learning?

[00:01:52] Vanessa Vakharia: Liesl, welcome to the podcast. I am so excited to have you here, ever since we met in a dingy hallway. Well, it wasn't dingy, but ever since we met while I was sitting on the floor eating a sandwich in a hallway.

[00:02:04] Liesl McConchie: It was kind of dark. 

[00:02:04] Vanessa Vakharia: It was dimly lit, for sure. Okay. So I have to say, we have never had a brain scientist, you're a brain scientist, right? I can call you a brain scientist.

[00:02:12] Liesl McConchie: Well, it depends on how you define a brain scientist. I don't have like a PhD in neuroscience, but, so I mean, you know, like, seriously, like how do you define someone who is, is something? Like I, yes, I study brain science, I might consider myself like a translator. I translate brain science for people who work in education.

[00:02:32] Vanessa Vakharia: Okay. Well that's amazing. I can't, I'm so excited to have a brain science translator in education on my podcast. And I wanna, let's just start, let's get right into it. Can you tell us what brain-based learning is like? What does that mean?

[00:02:45] Liesl McConchie: Yeah, sure. I mean, brain-based learning, I consider it to be the most student-centered way of approaching teaching and learning. So it's about understanding how the brain naturally learns, how it naturally operates, and then using that information to make informed decisions to maximize student learning.

[00:03:05] Vanessa Vakharia: I mean, I love it. It's so funny cause it's like, oh, that sounds so obvious, but am wrong in, am I wrong in saying like, we don't do that in most classrooms?

[00:03:13] Liesl McConchie: Uh, you are not wrong. We do not do that in most classrooms, which is why I'm here and why I have a job.

[00:03:20] Vanessa Vakharia: I guess like, just backing up, I mean, I've read a lot of your work and I've heard you on a lot of podcasts, and every time you speak about brain-based learning, obviously there are a ton of facets we'll get into, but what it made me actually think of right away, and I kind of want you to just do this first on the podcast. 

So, math therapy, yes, it's a podcast, but it's also PD I do, and it's, it's actually like a way of, meeting your math trauma face-to-face. And there are steps to math therapy. So you can do it in the classroom, you can do it to yourself, whatever, fine. But the first step is all about growth mindset. 

And I find myself now, every time I bring it up with teachers, I'm like, "okay, so step number one is to set up an environment where growth mindset is just an obvious in your classroom. Oh, I don't have to go into this, we all know it, we've all been talking about it, let's move on." 

And lately I've been like, hold on a second. You know when you like talk about something so much, you just assume everyone knows what you're talking about. And I feel like we've like said the term growth mindset so often, but I have never, at least on this podcast spoken about how it actually works, not just as a like woo woo mindset, but like in terms of how the brain works.

Can you get into that with us?

[00:04:25] Liesl McConchie: Yes, I'd love because I, you're so right. Because I feel like it's kind of morphed and you know, this happens, some new idea or new research comes out, and then the education system just like squeezes it and twists it and like messes with it like Play-Doh, and then all of a sudden it's like, boop. It just becomes this poster on a wall.

[00:04:41] Vanessa Vakharia: Totally.

[00:04:43] Liesl McConchie: And, that's growth mindset, which is not what it is at all. 

So growth mindset. The term of course was coined by Carol Dweck out of Stanford University, but the idea has been around for a very, okay, not very long time, but long enough for our lifetime. She basically just put a nice term, she like just labeled 

[00:05:03] Vanessa Vakharia: It's a very catchy term.

[00:05:04] Liesl McConchie: Sure. It's a very catchy term. And yeah, so it's all rooted in the science of neuroplasticity, is the fancy scientific term for it. Because before you and I were born, the accepted belief was the brain that you're born with is the brain that you're, that you die with, and that your brain doesn't change.

And so the idea of neuroplasticity, once they were able, the technology developed enough to be able to track and monitor and be like, hold on a second, like it, it was revolutionary in the field of cognitive neuroscience. People were like, what? Our brains actually can change? There was a lot of resistance to it.

[00:05:40] Vanessa Vakharia: Can I like interrupt so quickly to be like, how did people possibly think the brain you had when you were like a baby was the same brain?

[00:05:47] Liesl McConchie: I don't, I don't, I don't know. 

[00:05:49] Vanessa Vakharia: Like how does that even make sense? Ok fine whatever. We thought the earth was flat. Some people still do.

[00:05:53] Liesl McConchie: Sure. There's a lot of crazy things that we could, like people used to, right? Yeah. 

So neuroplasticity is the science that says our brains change. So the brain that actually you woke up with this morning is going to be different than your brain in an hour when we're done chatting today because you and I are gonna change each other's brains.

[00:06:13] Vanessa Vakharia: Wait, stop. That's actually very cool. I didn't even think of it happening on such like a micro, small, minute by minute level.

[00:06:19] Liesl McConchie: A hundred percent. It's already happened. It's already happened. And what, why I think neuroplasticity is the most important concept for teachers to understand and people who work with kids is because it is a message of hope.

[00:06:34] Vanessa Vakharia: Oh my God. Stop. I love this. I love this. Okay, go on.

[00:06:38] Liesl McConchie: It is! It's, it's the, it's the hope, it's the message of hope that we all need. Like, Hey, if I'm struggling with math right now, this isn't set in stone. My destiny is not determined. I can change, my brain can change, my abilities can change. And so when we can infuse that hope in students, then amazing things can happen because hopelessness is one of the most tragic neurobiological states for a learner to be in. Nothing's gonna happen when a student's in a state of hopelessness.

[00:07:10] Vanessa Vakharia: Wait, hold, and now I'm even like, wait, hopelessness is a neurobiological state?

[00:07:14] Liesl McConchie: Yes. Yes. So like, it's, it's not a mood. Moods last longer, but states are like these micro moods basically. And so right now you're in a state of curiosity because you're like, wait, hold on, what? And curiosity is one of the most amazing states to begin for learning to happen. 

But students and learners and people in general, we are constantly ebbing and flowing in and out of states all day long. Confusion, curiosity, hunger, anger, frustration, anxiety, confident, and some states help us help the brain to be able to learn better. And some really, you know, each state releases its own unique, uh, like ingredient of cocktails, it's like a cocktail, right? It's like all these different, okay, clearly, clearly I don't drink and I don't know what I'm talking about. 

[00:08:00] Vanessa Vakharia: I don't drink either. No, but I was thinking it's like a mocktail. It is.

[00:08:03] Liesl McConchie: Sure. Okay. We'll talk mocktails, right? So, so um, and so I mean, each state, whether it's anxiety or confidence or hopelessness or hopefullness, each one has its own signature recipe of neurochemicals and hormones that get released in the brain that activate or deactivate different parts of the brain, and does all these crazy, fancy stuff that ultimately makes it easier or harder for a person to learn and grow.

[00:08:29] Vanessa Vakharia: What is the difference between a state and a mood?

[00:08:33] Liesl McConchie: Oh Mostly it's time. 

[00:08:36] Vanessa Vakharia: Oh, like duration? 

[00:08:38] Liesl McConchie: So state, yes, yes. So states last for seconds, maybe minutes.

[00:08:44] Vanessa Vakharia: Oh.

[00:08:45] Liesl McConchie: A mood can be a prolonged state. And so the longer that you're in a state, if you stick, stay stuck in a state, it can turn into a mood. And yeah, that's the short version. 

[00:08:59] Vanessa Vakharia: Is like, is depression a state?

[00:09:02] Liesl McConchie: Yes, and a mood.

[00:09:04] Vanessa Vakharia: Like, I'm actually wondering, it's so interesting because, it feels like a state is something that's more, and I'm using air quotes, scientific. You're talking about chemicals, you're talking about, these ingredients. Whereas a mood feels more like, I don't know what the word is, ethereal or like something more like, woo woo. like it feels almost like a mood is something you should be able to snap out of versus a state where you're like, nope, you're in an actual neurological condition.

[00:09:31] Liesl McConchie: Well,

[00:09:32] Vanessa Vakharia: Am I wrong?

[00:09:33] Liesl McConchie: I, I dunno if I, I'd say that you're wrong. I mean, in my, in my book, Brain-Based Learning, there's a whole chapter on emotions and we break out the differences between an emotion, a state, and a mood. So, so states are reinforcing. It's like, tire tracks in a, in a muddy road kind of thing, like wagon ruts. And so the longer you're in a state, the more comfortable that is for you and your brain to be in, so you're more easily to slip in it. 

So when students are consistently in a state of hopelessness, specifically like in a math class, if we're gonna talk about math here, then it's easier over time for them to slip into that. It takes less of a trigger for them to slip into that. And so same thing with depression. depression can be just a short term like, oh, I'm just kind of like feeling really depressed today. And then that state can change. But if you continue to stay in or have reoccurring moments or, or minutes with depression, that it becomes easier and easier for you to get into a depressed mood and then it can become clinical depression. 

Which is why whenever we feel it, it's okay, it's normal, but we don't wanna get too comfortable and stay there too long. 

[00:10:41] Vanessa Vakharia: Okay. Right. Cause No, that completely makes sense. Like how you're talking about the tire tracks and I guess, so I like, I wanna go in two different directions here, so we're gonna just do both. 

The first thing I was actually thinking, the reason I was speaking about moods that way I, I think it's the language that I'm kind of getting hung up on because I'm like, you know, whenever we talk about mindset and growth mindset, we're gonna get more into neuroplasticity in a second, but I find that there is a chunk of a segment of the population that's just like, ugh, like mindset, come on. Like kind of eye rolling and being like, what even is that. Like the idea of just getting in a different math mindset? No, you just need to learn math, you just need to practice more. Like this kind of idea. 

And I wonder if it's actually because we're talking about it in a non-scientific way so often. Like, something I was gonna say to you before we even started recording, but I'll just say now is like, a lot of my background is in mindfulness, so that's like, I find that yes, I might not know about the brain science of things, but so much of my work and my studying has been in like mindful based stress reduction, in meditation, and all of those things that merge in a weird way with growth mindset, but in a way that I feel can come off as kind of like hippie vibes. 

[00:11:48] Liesl McConchie: I, I hear what you're saying, but there's so much science behind it. Mindfulness is one of the most powerful ways to transition from a negative state, or one that doesn't serve a learning brain, into a more positive state. So when someone's feeling anxious or hopelessness, mindfulness practices really help bring students, or a learner, a person, back into a state of feeling calm and centered and confident and just in control.

Because mindfulness is the act of, you know, controlling your mind and your breathing and that brings you back into, okay, I have control over this. I can, um, be in charge of myself and my learning, whereas hopelessness and anxiety feels so external.


[00:12:31] Vanessa Vakharia: So circling back to neuroplasticity, can you tell us how it all kind of ties together?

[00:12:35] Liesl McConchie: So neuroplasticity is this science that supports Carol Dweck's work that, abilities can change, nothing is set in stone or static, and it is a message of hope, that puts us in a state to be able to learn. And so when I work with teachers, I talk a lot more about neuroplasticity because that's more of my area of expertise.

And I actually show videos of students doing a math problem. And I say, how many different states can you identify just in this two minute video? And you can watch a learner go from curious to frustrated to confident and that just shows that it's constantly changing. 

[00:13:14] Vanessa Vakharia: And neuroplasticity is like literally your brain, without getting too into the science, it is like, could you do a quick science summary of what it means?

[00:13:23] Liesl McConchie: Yes. It's the science that says your brain can and does change, all the time.

[00:13:29] Vanessa Vakharia: Amazing. Amazing. So, okay, it seems like, I am gonna use a really obnoxious pun, but like it does seem like a no-brainer that, given that we should, David's shaking his head, we, I even wrote it down. I was like, it's gonna be so good, Liesl's gonna love this. Um, 

It seems like a no-brainer that we should be, it's like, okay, look, it's been proven, it's scientifically proven. Like to me, I'd be like, oh, our brains are constantly changing, that should mean there's no such thing as this myth of the math person, there's no such thing as a math gene.

[00:14:01] Liesl McConchie: Yes.

[00:14:02] Vanessa Vakharia: So what's up? Why is, I literally did a talk for parents last week, and I asked to the room, I said, how many of you believe that you're either born good at math or born bad at math? And half of them raised their hands. Half! And I was like, what? So what, what's, 

[00:14:20] Liesl McConchie: Where does that come from?

[00:14:21] Vanessa Vakharia: Well, I mean, we don't have time

[00:14:24] Liesl McConchie: Okay.

[00:14:25] Vanessa Vakharia: It serves a segment of the population to keep that, let's be honest. 

But, but given everything you're saying, also, sorry, I have a very quick question because you probably know the answer. Carol Dweck, you just said that, um, neuroplasticity is the science that supports Carol Dweck's research. Was she, like I actually really don't know, when she came up with all of this stuff, was it based in brain science or did that come after?

[00:14:46] Liesl McConchie: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, she knows, she's very well-versed in brain science and neuroplasticity, I mean she didn't like discover neuroplasticity or anything like that, but she just had really great marketing in coining a really catchy term.

[00:14:59] Vanessa Vakharia: But she was using it from the onset of being like growth mindset, she was like right away, it's rooted in brain science? Okay. 

Myth of the "math gene"

[00:15:05] Vanessa Vakharia: All right, so fast forward to now. So what is going on and why do people still say things like "math person", why is it so hard for people to believe what you're saying? You're very convincing. You sound knowledgeable.

[00:15:16] Liesl McConchie: First of all, let's take it from the words of my eight year old. So this morning as I was preparing for this podcast, my eight year old was like, what is your podcast about today anyway, what are you talking about? And so I was telling him a couple things. I was like, well, one of the things we're gonna talk about is this whole thing of, you know, some people believe that people are born really good at math, and that there's like this actual gene that makes you good at math. And, others believe that that's not true, that you can get better at math. 

And he's like, well, that's an easy question. He's like, of course it's the second one. And I was like, that's right. You know, so this really isn't that hard to believe. So, uh, okay, let's get into it.

First of all, I wanna say this. When people talk about whether there is a genetic disposition to math or not, what I really wanna say is, I don't care.

[00:16:09] Vanessa Vakharia: Hmm. Ooh, ooh 

[00:16:10] Liesl McConchie: I don't care. Because let's just play devil's advocate and let's say, let's say that there is. There isn't, but let's say that there is. What are you gonna do with that information?

[00:16:22] Vanessa Vakharia: Well, I feel like, I mean, is this, is this rhetorical or are you asking?

[00:16:27] Liesl McConchie: Like for real. Okay, so here we go. Here's your class list, math teacher, and I have done genetic testing on these, on your students, and I know which ones have this math gene and which ones don't. What are you gonna do with this information?

[00:16:41] Vanessa Vakharia: But I feel like people, like, I feel like that we have a history of doing stuff with this information that's very bad.

[00:16:47] Liesl McConchie: Exactly.

[00:16:48] Vanessa Vakharia: Right.

[00:16:50] Liesl McConchie: No good is gonna

[00:16:51] Vanessa Vakharia: No, no good is gonna come from it.

[00:16:52] Liesl McConchie: You're gonna, you're gonna track your students, you're going to label them, you're gonna treat them differently. It's going to be a repetition of that 1960s, whatever it was, study with a Rosenthal effect where they arbitrarily put students in two different classes, but told the teachers, Hey, you got all the smart high scoring students, and ooh, hey, sorry, these students aren't so smart, And you're gonna replicate that same study, which you

[00:17:18] Vanessa Vakharia: But tell us what happened. Tell us what happened in the end

[00:17:19] Liesl McConchie: Okay, so two things happened. So they, they tested all the kids and then randomly assigned them into two different groups. Okay. But told the teachers, you got all the smart kids. You got all the not smart kids.

Well, what happened is what you would anticipate happening. That the students who were randomly assigned to a teacher who was told that they had all of the smart, high performing students, they outperformed all of the students over here in the other class who had a teacher who were told that they weren't smart.

And so there's two big things that we can learn from this study. One is that teacher expectations can be manipulated,

[00:17:57] Vanessa Vakharia: Hmm. Hmm.

[00:18:00] Liesl McConchie: Which is what happens with all this research about a math gene, is that all you're doing is you're manipulating teacher's expectations, you're confirming their biases around who's good at math and who's not. And then the other thing that happened is that we learned that teacher expectations impact student achievement, which means you're hurting kids. 

So basically, if you wanna buy into the math gene theory, what you're going to be doing is confirming a bias that some kids are better than others, and you're gonna be hurting kids.

[00:18:35] Vanessa Vakharia: But what about like the, the kids or the adults who, hang on. I've had people say something like, well, if there's no math gene, what's my excuse for being bad at math? The idea of any sort of mathematical ability being rooted in genetics in literally any way would be so, so, so minor that it's not significant, is that correct?

[00:18:54] Liesl McConchie: E, exactly, yes. Like there are regions of the brain that are highly associated with some types of mathematical computations. It's not all math lives in one part of the brain, that's ridiculous, that's very old school thinking. And also I got a lot of questions about how they're actually studying it because it's like, they're testing math abilities in like three to six year olds and then a little bit later on, don't tell me that like a three to six year old hasn't already been exposed to a tremendous amount of math already in their environment.

[00:19:27] Vanessa Vakharia: Or and messaging and like all sorts of stuff.

[00:19:29] Liesl McConchie: Sure. I mean, I've got a four year old and he will, he can already tell you like all the square numbers up to a hundred. And he knows what they mean. That is not because he has a genetic disposition. That's because he is immersed in an environment where there's a lot of math going on, because he has older siblings, because he has a mother that loves math, and because we play a lot of math games. He's exposed to a lot of math manipulatives in his playroom.

And so they're, all of the environmental factors are far, far, far more significant to someone's math ability than this little thing right here.

[00:20:05] Vanessa Vakharia: So, okay, I need to actually clear this up with somebody. The whole, you know how everyone's always like left brain, right brain, left brain, right brain. That's like nonsense right? 

[00:20:13] Liesl McConchie: Yep.

[00:20:13] Vanessa Vakharia: Oh my God. Okay, I'm so glad. Cause I always bring that up as an example. I'm like, it's actual bs. Like, I don't know why we keep saying it, but people saying it. Okay, great. 


[00:20:20] Vanessa Vakharia: Anyways. Okay, that being said, are we gonna talk about epigenetics right now? You told me bring it up. Okay, so let's, what is it? 

[00:20:27] Liesl McConchie: Okay. So 

[00:20:28] Vanessa Vakharia: I'm putting so much pressure on you. I'm like,

[00:20:29] Liesl McConchie: No, no, no. I love it. So let's just say epigenetics is this really new, very, very new, exciting field in neuroscience that explains how your environment, and experiences that you have in life, literally alter the way in which your genes are expressing themselves. We have to like go back to like biology classes. So it literally is changing your genetic makeup, which genes are being expressed, which genes are turned on, which genes are turned off. 

And so even if there is like this tiny little bit of genetic heritability of like this one little kind of computational arithmetic math, it all can change. The way that I'm raising my children is literally altering the way their genes are gonna be expressed.

[00:21:24] Vanessa Vakharia: Whoa. Whoa. That's, I didn't even know that was a thing.

[00:21:28] Liesl McConchie: It is. And this is why people talk about how trauma is inheritable. So like the trauma 

[00:21:34] Vanessa Vakharia: Like generational trauma? 

[00:21:36] Liesl McConchie: Yes. Yes. Because it is altering the genetic makeup of the offspring and how those are expressed. Yep.

[00:21:45] Vanessa Vakharia: What? What?

[00:21:47] Liesl McConchie: Yes. So even if people wanna buy into the math gene, fine. I mean, not fine, but even if you do, then, well, you can't change that, let's focus on the things that we do have influence over. Let's create an environment where we can express and amplify the mathematical abilities that we all have within us.

We can literally fix this, this whole like math person thing by creating amazing, enriching experiences for students that are healing of whatever math trauma might be passed down, math anxiety that might be passed down, and of course their ability.

How math trauma actually works

[00:22:26] Vanessa Vakharia: Okay, let's, we have to go, I mean, because this is a podcast about math trauma. I mean, I need to just get rid of all the personal questions I have for my own benefit. I wanna talk about math trauma, okay. And this idea of generational trauma, this idea of math trauma, I speak about it a lot, but I very rarely focus on what's actually happening in the brain. 

So when we started this conversation, we weren't recording, but as a summary, we were talking about like, oh my gosh, there's so little, out there, there's so little research about trauma and how it affects learning, especially learning math, right? Like that's, not to put words in your mouth, we were saying that.

And what I was thinking is, because I actually feel like it is only recently, first of all, this whole idea of socio-emotional learning, the idea of looking at a student as a whole person that isn't just like some robot " it's fairly new. Right? 

[00:23:13] Liesl McConchie: Which is, what?

[00:23:14] Vanessa Vakharia: It's wild, of course, but it's like, it is fairly new. Even like the way we're talking about mental health now is completely new, right? We wouldn't have been using the word trauma five years ago. People would've been like, what? Trauma has to mean something so extreme that universally, collectively we can agree on the word.

So I just, I actually think the discourse around it has changed and now we're kind of scrambling to catch up. I, I think no one has taken it seriously before. Again, like even when I started this podcast three years ago, people were like, "math trauma, that seems like a bit much". Whereas now you're hearing it more.

So I actually wanna talk about this with you. Like what did you find when you were looking into it? When you hear "math trauma" and when you're thinking about what's actually going on in the brain, what's happening for you? That, that was, 30 questions.

[00:23:57] Liesl McConchie: That was, okay, remind me of the ones that I missed. 

Okay, so what did I find? What I found was nothing.

[00:24:03] Vanessa Vakharia: Wow.

[00:24:05] Liesl McConchie: I found nothing. I cannot find any research on math trauma, so if anyone listening has any, please pass it my way. I'm trying to learn more about it. 

What there is is a ton of research on trauma, in different contexts. And so being able to read and decipher all of that and then translate it into a context of math is not a big leap. There just isn't anything that's already written out there that I have been able to find yet. So math anxiety and math and trauma are two different things. So we need to make sure we separate these two. 

[00:24:37] Vanessa Vakharia: Let's do that, yes.

[00:24:38] Liesl McConchie: So math anxiety is just the feeling of anxiousness. Okay? So anxiety is a state, going back to that. Anxiety can be short-lived. I can feel math anxiety in the moments before a test or some other kind of an assessment, and then it can leave me. And some people, like we talked about those ruts in the road, some people can fall into that state of anxiety real quickly, and they stay there a lot, because of past math experiences and things like that. 

Now math trauma is rooted in either an isolated traumatic experience that the student has had, or, a series of repeated traumas that have been building up over time.

Now, trauma is stored in the brain completely different than other things, than the rest of life experiences that we have. Completely different. 

Yeah. It's so fascinating, Vanessa. I 

[00:25:33] Vanessa Vakharia: Like what 

[00:25:33] Liesl McConchie: I'm totally nerding out right now. 

[00:25:34] Vanessa Vakharia: I love, nerd out! 

[00:25:36] Liesl McConchie: Let me see if I can keep this pretty simple. So in a normal life experience, let's say, like Vanessa, what's something that you did over this weekend that you'd be willing to share?

[00:25:45] Vanessa Vakharia: I, what have I done? I've recorded podcast interviews. Well, I pro, I did some singing lessons. I practiced my, my vocal range.

[00:25:53] Liesl McConchie: Okay. So when you're at your singing, so like that happened and everything that happened as you were like going to wherever singing lessons happen 

[00:26:00] Vanessa Vakharia: And I couldn't the note, I was really upset. Does that help with the trauma?

[00:26:05] Liesl McConchie: We're not talking trauma yet. We're talking non-trauma things. 

So that stuff gets inputted into the brain. And what happens is it passes through your amygdala, which is your emotional control center of the brain, and it acts kind of like TSA at the airport where it's like this, this screening system. And if there's anything that is a perception of fear or anxiety or any kind of stress or any kind of perception of threat, the amygdala like sets off the alarms, "beep beep beep beep beep".

And because the brain is designed for survival and not school learning, which is a huge misunderstanding that people don't understand, like "why can't they just learn it?" Because the brain is not designed to learn math. The brain's designed to keep you alive, and so if there's something that is threatening you, or is creating anxiety in you, your brain is going to shut everything else down and handle this because people try to like push emotions away and try to ignore them? No. They are central to who we are and how we learn. 

And so the amygdala acts like TSA and filters all of this. And let's just say like singing lessons, everything's, you know, going fine. And then what happens is that, information then gets like into your hippocampus. It gets spread out to all these different parts of your brain. The pictures get put in one place and there's sounds of you singing in a different place, and what you're doing with your body goes somewhere else. And so all of our memories are stored, stored all over the place in our brain. 

So when we try to remember something, when I say like, Hey, think back to when you had your music lesson, all those pieces come back together like puzzle pieces to rebuild this memory. That's how normal experiences happen.

Trauma, totally different.

[00:27:51] Vanessa Vakharia: What happens? What does TSA do? What's going on?

[00:27:55] Liesl McConchie: It gets stuck in TSA.

[00:27:57] Vanessa Vakharia: Oh!

[00:27:58] Liesl McConchie: It gets stuck in TSA and it never gets spread apart into different parts of the brain. It all stays together and it gets imprinted in your amygdala because trauma is, is an experience that the emotions are so high that we can't handle them.

And so it never makes it past the amygdala. And so the whole memory gets stored as like this one giant clump. And here's why that matters, because it doesn't get dispersed, that means that anything that reminds you of any of those sensory experiences from that traumatic experience, so let's say, okay, let's talk about math. 

[00:28:33] Vanessa Vakharia: Let's, yeah, let's do a, let's do an example.

[00:28:36] Liesl McConchie: Yeah. So do you wanna give one? You want

[00:28:38] Vanessa Vakharia: Yeah. Like let's say, let's say like classic example you're asked to do, like stand up in front of the class and do your mad minutes, and you do it and you forget something and the class laughs at you.

[00:28:47] Liesl McConchie: Okay, great. Um, and okay, 

[00:28:51] Vanessa Vakharia: And you pee your pants. I'm not saying this happened to me.

[00:28:54] Liesl McConchie: Oh no!

[00:28:54] Vanessa Vakharia: I'm not saying it didn't happen to me either. Go on. 

[00:28:57] Liesl McConchie: Did that happen to you?

[00:28:57] Vanessa Vakharia: I can't, I mean, I'm winking.

[00:29:00] Liesl McConchie: Okay.

[00:29:00] Vanessa Vakharia: It did happen to me in grade one and I peed my pants. Yeah, I know. David's shocked. I, I peed my pants twice in grade one, that was the first time. The second time was because I was too embarrassed to raise my hand to say I had to go to the bathroom and then I peed all over my chair and pretended I'd spilled like water everywhere. That's normal, right? Kids do that.

[00:29:17] Liesl McConchie: Yeah. Yeah, for sure.

[00:29:19] Vanessa Vakharia: Okay. Anyways, but the first time.

[00:29:21] Liesl McConchie: Okay, so that's, yes. This is a great example. I'm so sorry that happened to you.

[00:29:27] Vanessa Vakharia: It's okay. I've moved on, but, but have I? I don't know, let's see!

[00:29:31] Liesl McConchie: Right, so that experience gets implanted in your amygdala. So any time, any part of that is remembered, so it could be, you know, you being in front of a room and everyone's laughing at you. Even though it's, it's not connected to that specific experience, the laughter triggers that traumatic memory and it all comes back, the trauma comes back.

It could be you standing in front of a room, asked to read your answers to something. It could be, you know, any of these things that might, so like with PTSD, with trauma, it could be the barbecue in someone's backyard, like the little flame in a barbecue that triggers the explosion when they were out on the war field, because the sensory experiences are all connected and it didn't get dispersed. So one little piece triggers the whole thing again.

[00:30:28] Vanessa Vakharia: So when we think about math, just because I feel like some people might be like, this is such a leap, but it's like, no, like imagine, we're talking about my experience, fine, and then anytime for example, a teacher calls on you to answer a question in front of the class, it might spark that like, oh my God, I have to speak publicly, and you're back in that peeing your pants spot and you can never, you always stumble and you feel so uncomfortable and, or you start crying when you have to, like answer the question.

[00:30:52] Liesl McConchie: Yes. And so, and why it matters so much is because when the whole memory comes flooding back, the amygdala, remember the amygdala is there to keep you safe, and so it's going to shut down everything else in your brain. So when, when the trauma is triggered or relived, then it shuts down the learning centers of the brain and students aren't able to learn.

[00:31:11] Vanessa Vakharia: So it's twofold because it's like, okay, yes, on the one hand, first of all, like both are bad. Like it's, yes, shutting down the learning centers is obviously not ideal for learning math, but also like the child is experiencing horrible emotions that they had once experienced before, right? There's like two things going on that are both bad.

[00:31:29] Liesl McConchie: Yes.

[00:31:31] Vanessa Vakharia: David just held up the phone with a note saying, is this why you're always so stressed when you have to present at conferences? Uh, okay, we'll have to explore that at a later date.

Classroom strategies to counter math trauma

[00:31:41] Vanessa Vakharia: Okay. This part is so important I think, you've explained it so concisely and so well, and I actually think it's really, really important to not just be like, oh, like we don't wanna traumatize kids because obviously, you know, that sucks. And when we do these things, like there are a lot of things that, you know, have been shown to re-trigger trauma or to cause trauma. Things like calling on kids when their hands aren't up. Things like speed testing, this kind of stuff. 

[00:32:03] Liesl McConchie: Yes this is why it's so important as a teacher. So like let's say I'm a high school math teacher and I have no idea what type of math trauma my students have, are bringing with them, whatever happened. This is why it's so important for us to explore our math stories with each other, to share, because I don't know that like flipping on my dock cam is going to trigger a past traumatic experience with a student that they had when they were in sixth grade math, I don't know what it was, but it could be something, and this is why it's important for us to explore these experiences. 

The way we heal from trauma is to, you know, you can't like hide or suppress them. They're there. You need to create a safe space for people to explore their past experiences with math and simultaneously infuse it with new, joyful experiences. Which is exactly what you do in your, in your tutoring center.

[00:32:59] Vanessa Vakharia: Well, I love, I love this, I love this so much and I always, so whenever I'm, you know, speaking to teachers about this, I talk about this, I'm like, it's impossible to know what everyone's coming into the classroom with, right? So what are some strategies we can use? 

And one of the things I talk about is making a classroom math agreement. Like have you ever done, right? Where you like ask everyone, you're like, what are things you like about math in a group? What are things you don't, let's kind of negotiate. So maybe some kids might say something like, I really hate when kids speak over me or I really hate when I'm being rushed. 

That gives you a chance to kind of like sneakily gauge what traumas they might be coming in with. But also like if one person has experienced it, the chances are more people have. What do you think about that as a strategy and do you have any other strategies for teachers who are like, how can I kind of figure it out?

[00:33:43] Liesl McConchie: Yeah, so I'm writing a whole book on it that's gonna have a collection of lots of different activities for teachers to do just that. So it depends on the grade level. For younger grades with the middle school, what I'm doing right now with middle schoolers is we're graphing our math journey. So from K through wherever they are, sixth grade, eighth grade. 

And we talk about it in terms of a relationship, your relationship with math. Relationships are complicated. And there's times when we're really in love with math. And then there are times when we break up with math and so they take this graph like K through six and like, how did, what was your relationship with math like? And we just use emojis as our axes points of like, happy face, neutral, and then like, ugh. 

And what I love about this activity is it, it gives me a visual of how their math journey has been. And then I ask them if I can do either conferencing with them or have them do a little bit of a writing of just, Hey, label the high point and label the low point. Tell me what was going on there that made you fall in love with math. Who was your teacher? What was going on? What were they doing? And then this low point when you had like a total breakup with math, what was happening there? Because that also gives me that information. But what I also love about that graphing experience is that it completely feeds the ideas we were talking about earlier around neuroplasticity, growth mindset, of like, look, your experience with math is not static, it, it's not a plateau. It's changing and it, and the future will continue to change. Here's some tools to help keep it up on high. 

So then another thing that I like to do with maybe more high school students is, it's actually an idea that was taken from Sarah Strong, who wrote a book with one of her students, Gigi Butterfield, called Dear Math, where students actually write a letter to math and talk about the relationship that they have with math and what they think and how they feel about math.

And then it's really therapeutic and it gives me a lot of information about their experiences with math and what is triggering for them. Which like, we have to be able to talk about this, otherwise, here I come in with 180 students who have all unique, different experiences with math, and I have no idea where they're at and how I can help them heal so that I can help them grow.

Because if we don't heal first, the growing is either gonna be slow or painful or non-existent at all.

[00:36:03] Vanessa Vakharia: So I have a, a final question, which is something I've been toying with a lot and trying to decide how I feel, and I see this in rooms when I talk to teachers about this. How do you feel about all of the stuff you're talking about, but a teacher trying to carry this out who might not have done any mindfulness themselves, they might have never seen a therapist. This isn't something you get, this isn't a part of a teacher training, any of the socio-emotional stuff. Do you think teachers need to do something or be certified in some way or get trained in some way or know something before they carry out activities like this? Or do you think it's like any teacher can do this?

[00:36:36] Liesl McConchie: That's a great question. I, I have the same question myself. I think, and, but, so there's different levels, right? If you really wanna heal trauma, then you probably should find a trained clinical psychologist who can do like EMDR with you. And so we need to, when we serve teachers like you and I in the work that we do, when we serve teachers, it's not like an all or nothing, and we can't let great be the enemy of good. 

[00:37:05] Vanessa Vakharia: Love.

[00:37:05] Liesl McConchie: You know?

[00:37:06] Vanessa Vakharia: I needed to hear that, right now. 

[00:37:08] Liesl McConchie: Yeah. You know, so like anything is better than nothing and we're gonna continue to grow. Like you said, this is, these are new realms that we're in, this in the last few years, last decade when we're opening up and seeing the need for this type of things.

And so, anything is better than nothing. So even if you have students graph, have them like do a short paragraph writing, even just like putting emojis in terms of how they're feeling about math. Just finding ways to bridge in the emotional aspects and their relationship with math is all going to, be helpful.

But the thing is, is that so many teachers are bringing in their own math anxiety and their own math trauma, which is really contagious. Really, really contagious. 

[00:37:53] Vanessa Vakharia: So it's like maybe they need to do that work themselves.

[00:37:57] Liesl McConchie: Yeah. 

[00:37:57] Vanessa Vakharia: Which is like, yeah, like I'm, I'm also working on a course for teachers who are, it's, you know, partially healing your own math trauma. And we know that a lot, like a lot of elementary teachers and teachers that aren't necessarily trained in math and aren't math specialists have that. And I think, yeah, I was talking to Deborah Peart, I was mentioning before, and she does a lot of mindfulness and math, that's kind of her thing. And I know this is so hard, it's like we're limited for time and all sorts of things, but she was like, it's kind of hard to be teaching kids about mindfulness when you don't have your own mindfulness practice or have never done it, right? Like, how can you come in and be like, guys, let's all get grounded when you're like, I don't know how to do that myself.

[00:38:32] Liesl McConchie: Yeah.

[00:38:32] Vanessa Vakharia: And, and I mean, I think it's one of those things where it's like there's such a need, and good thing we're both working on it, but there is a need for resources for teachers. Because I find this, we tell teachers to just start teaching socio-emotional learning and just get right into it, we give them an hour of PD, and it's like, this is a whole new concept. It's a whole new way to approach a math classroom. Sometimes I'm just kind of like, ner, not nervous, but I can feel that teachers in the room are nervous when they're like, I've never done any of this stuff myself. Like I don't wanna cause damage, but I guess in a way it's like we're already causing damage.

[00:39:06] Liesl McConchie: Right, right, right. We're just trying to cause less damage and anything with the social-emotional learning, the research is so clear that, I mean, I used to write a bunch of curriculum and I do, I like write a bunch of SEL curriculum and students take it, but the research is so clear that the best way to learn that is just to be surrounded by people who model it.

[00:39:25] Vanessa Vakharia: Yes.

[00:39:26] Liesl McConchie: And so we have to, we can't just, and same thing with growth mindset. We can't like help students have a growth mindset if the teachers don't have a growth mindset and don't believe that the students have the ability. 

[00:39:38] Vanessa Vakharia: Yes, I always, end my presentations with a Ted Lasso, wait, have you seen Ted Lasso? Liesl, okay. I mean, that's, that's a lot. Okay. But,

[00:39:47] Liesl McConchie: I just, we talked about it didn't we? It's the F-words. It's, I wanna watch it so bad. I need it edited. There's too many F-words! 

[00:39:53] Vanessa Vakharia: Right. That's right. They do swear a lot in it.

[00:39:55] Liesl McConchie: A lot.

[00:39:56] Vanessa Vakharia: They do, they're a football team. 

Anyways, the point is, my last slide is always the greatest thing you can do as a teacher is just believe, like genuinely believing because your students can tell if you don't, you can talk about growth mindset as much as you want, but unless you're internalizing it and embodying it, it's all just lip service. 

[00:40:12] Liesl McConchie: And there's tremendous research to support that. A hundred percent true.

[00:40:17] Vanessa Vakharia: Okay Liesl we are moving on to the final two questions we ask every single guest. 


[00:40:21] Vanessa Vakharia: Question one, what is the one thing you'd like to see change about the way math is taught in schools?

[00:40:26] Liesl McConchie: Oh, geez.

[00:40:30] Vanessa Vakharia: The best reaction, I know there's a hundred, but like, what's one? 

[00:40:33] Liesl McConchie: That the non-math factors matter so much more than you think. That the relationship that the teacher has with the learner, the sense of belonging that the students have, how safe students feel to fail and make mistakes. All of the non-conscious, invisible factors, those deserve your attention more than you out there searching for the most amazing math task on Google to solve, that you think is gonna solve all of your problems when teaching linear functions.

[00:41:06] Vanessa Vakharia: The hidden curriculum. Love it. 


[00:41:10] Vanessa Vakharia: And finally, Liesl, what do you say to someone who's like, but Liesl, I'm just not a math person.

[00:41:16] Liesl McConchie: You're wrong. " Eh, wrong answer" is what my kids would say.

[00:41:24] Vanessa Vakharia: Okay, great. Very succinct. We'll just get that on a t-shirt. "You're wrong" I love it. 

[00:41:28] Liesl McConchie: No, I would say, I would probably say, wow, I'm really sorry. Like what, tell me more. Tell me what has happened in your math experience that has led you to believe that.

[00:41:37] Vanessa Vakharia: Who hurt you?

[00:41:39] Liesl McConchie: Yes! I'm taking names. Tell me where they are. Gimme their address.


[00:41:46] Vanessa Vakharia: Okay. You are amazing. This has been so amazing. I have learned so much and you've given a whole other perspective and kaleidoscope lens with which I can now view like so much of the work I'm already doing. I really love it so much. And I think it just kind of goes to show that everything is so interconnected and sometimes you're intuitively doing something or maybe you're doing something from more of a, like mindfulness, self, like I'm really into self-help, so I think a lot of this stuff has been from that perspective, which is not often, quote unquote rooted in science, but it's so nice to kind hear like it is. 

[00:42:15] Liesl McConchie: It is. It is. We're, we're slow. We're slow. But the, the fields are merging. They really, really are. 

[00:42:22] Vanessa Vakharia: Which is so cool. And it's like, all one of those things that's obvious, but it just has, I, I love that it's coming together right in this moment, on this episode. So tell us where can we all find you?

[00:42:31] Liesl McConchie: The best place probably to find me would be Twitter, that's where I'm most active on social media. You can also find me on my website, which is Check the show notes for spelling. And, yeah, I just have a lot of videos and free resources and things that I put out there. And a workshop on motivation,the science of motivation and how we can support that with our classroom students.

[00:42:54] Vanessa Vakharia: What a treat. Oh my God. I'm so glad I was eating a sandwich on the floor of that hallway that one day. This has been amazing. It has been such an honor. I'm such a huge fan. Thank you so much for coming on my podcast.

[00:43:06] Liesl McConchie: Thank you. It's been such a pleasure.

Episode outro

[00:43:08] Vanessa Vakharia: Okay. I cannot stop thinking about how my brain is different now than it was at the beginning of this episode. Like that will never not be exciting to me. 

So the thing is, we recorded this interview before the Math Therapy team visited a Michigan prison for Pi Day, which you might have heard me reflect on in a bonus episode before Season Five launched. And if you didn't, you should totally listen to it because it's wild. But the point is this thought of, you know, our brains being different was fresh in my mind that day. So I shared it with the inmates at the end of the event, and it was so empowering for them. They were all like, oh my God, I felt my brain change. 

You know, the thing is technical terms like neuroplasticity can sometimes feel a bit out of reach. So to hear from a brain expert that we can literally just change our brains as we learn was super empowering for me too.

Show outro

If something in this episode inspired you, please tweet us @maththerapy, and you can also follow me personally @themathguru on Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok. 

Math Therapy is hosted by me, Vanessa Vakharia, it was created by me and Sabina Wex, and it's produced and edited by David Kochberg. Our theme music is by Goodnight Sunrise.

And guys, if you know someone who needs math therapy or just needs to hear someone else getting math therapy, please, please, please share this podcast, and rate or review it on whatever podcast app you use. Those things actually make such a big difference for us. I'm determined to change the culture surrounding math and I need your help, so spread the word. Until next time, peace, love, and pi.

Brain-based learning
Neuroplasticity = hope
Myth of the "math gene"
Math trauma in action
Classroom strategies for teachers

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