Overcome a Conditioned Fear Response

Overcome a Conditioned Fear Response

A conditioned fear response is one of the trickiest obstacles to overcome. It doesn’t always develop, but when it does, it will take some patience.

What is a Conditioned Fear Response?


A conditioned fear response is how your body reacts to things that caused pain in the past. For example, let’s say you went on a few dates, but each time you did, you had a bad experience. This could cause a conditioned fear response to develop. Because of those bad experiences you are now less likely to want to go on dates in the future.

Now let’s take it a step further. Let’s say you finally decide to get back out there and begin dating again.  You go on your date, but unfortunately, it’s just another bad experience. Sadly, you’re now less likely to go on dates than you were before. This is because the higher the frequency of these bad experiences, the higher your fear becomes.

A conditioned fear response can also develop due to the intensity of pain. For example, let’s say you go on just one date, but during this date you have a really bad experience. This really bad experience can also cause a conditioned fear response to develop.


How Does This Affect Learning Math Facts?


A conditioned fear response can also develop while learning math facts. For example, let’s say Jim is a student in a fourth grade class. Every day Jim’s class practices their multiplication and division facts. They use a variety of tools to practice, including flashcards and worksheets.

Jim notices that his entire class is getting better, except for him. When using worksheets, Jim notices that he is always the last person to finish. When using flashcards, Jim sees everyone else is able to answer those questions he just can’t figure out. Now, every time the class is about to practice, Jim begins to feel anxious. Sadly, Jim can’t just leave class whenever practice begins, so instead, he just shuts down.


Tip 1. Create a Feeling of Safety
  • Controlled Environment – Noun – An environment which is artificially regulated to ensure conditions … remain stable – Oxford Dictionary
  • “The environment can influence peoples’ behavior and motivation to act.” –University of Minnesota



When a fear develops, it will often attach to more than one thing.  Many times, a fear will associate with lots of things. For an example, let’s look back at Jim. We already know that Jim developed a conditioned fear response to math facts, but math facts weren’t the only thing there when this fear developed. There were also the flash cards that were used, the worksheets that were used, the students and teacher that were present, the desk he was sitting at, the time of day his class practiced, etc, etc, etc…  Any of these factors may now contribute to his fear.

If we could, we would want to address as many of these factors as possible. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to know what all of these things are. Most of the time, a student’s fear will develop in a place you weren’t a part of. In addition, It would also be extremely time consuming. Fortunately, there are still options.

Technique – Keep things as consistent as  possible – One option is to keep things as consistent as possible. Consistency can do a lot of things. For one, when an environment is consistent it feels safe, and places that feel safe are easier to work in. Because of this, it becomes a lot easier to get over any fear that might come up. Many times, fears will go away just because they are naturally exposed over and over again in a safe environment.


Tip 2. Weaken the Fear


Sometimes a fear may be too strong to go away just through consistent exposure in a safe environment. If this happens, it’s often best to use a technique that will slowly remove it.

Technique – Use Systematic Desensitization – Systematic desensitization is a powerful technique that has been used for decades to address phobias.  Systematic desensitization slowly removes a fear by systematically increasing a stimulus in a way that doesn’t decrease a person’s feeling of safety.

Systematic desensitization is most often used in clinical settings, but you can easily apply these methods to learning environments.  The first key is to only provide material that  can lead to success.  For example, when using math worksheets, it’s best to use worksheets that will allow success to occur.  If the student does not yet know 8×7=56, it is best to leave this off the worksheet.

The second key is to provide a manageable piece of whatever they are afraid of and systematically increase it.  For example, if you are using multiplication worksheets, you could start with a smaller number of problems (such as 16 problems).  Once the student shows they can successfully complete 16 problems, you would increase the number of questions (such as 30 problems).  Once they can complete 30 problems without fear, you would increase it again.  These incremental increases will continue until the student has reached the average number of problems for his grade level.


Tip 3. Use a Strategy that Works for the Student

Consistent failure can cause a conditioned fear response develop.  In education, these failures often occur because the person has been unable to learn using common teaching methods.  To prevent this, it’s best to use a teaching strategy that will work for the student.  Arrays and counters is one technique that has a higher likelihood of being successful.  There are many reasons for this including a higher sensory opportunity, appropriate chunking, use of fact families, relationships between facts, etc., etc.

Example of an array used to increase retention
Image 1 (3×3)


Technique – Use Arrays and Counters – Arrays are a great tool that can combine sensory modes when teaching math facts.   Teaching with arrays is easy to do, and learning is much more efficient.


When using arrays it’s important to use counters.  Counters allow use of an extra sensory mode (touch).  There are plenty of items you can use as counters.  Some examples are beans, pennies, and bingo chips.

Sample array for building retention
Image 2 (3×6)


When using an array, be sure to begin with a small fact (such as 3×3).  Large facts (such as 3×6 or 6×6) are taught by doubling sections.


Sample Array for Building Retention
Image 3 (6×6)


A collection of arrays designed to teach these facts are provided on our worksheets page.  These worksheets are free to print and use.




Tip 4. Keep it Positive

When discouragement sets in, it can decrease the effectiveness of everything else.  To prevent this, it’s best to keep things positive.  One way of keeping things positive is through positive reinforcement.

Technique – Provide Positive Reinforcement – Positive reinforcement is a behavioral technique which focuses on the positive outcomes rather than the negative ones.  A good rule of thumb when using positive reinforcement is to provide 5 positive comments to every 1 negative.


Thanks for Reading. Would You Like to Print this Article?