Understanding Maths Anxiety: A Parents’ Guide On How To Overcome This Primary School Problem
Maths anxiety is a phenomenon that has been around for more than 50 years, and it is something that affects many young mathematicians throughout primary school and beyond.
With maths anxiety even causing some children to struggle with maths, it is important that all parents can answer:
- What is maths anxiety?
- What does maths anxiety look like in children?
- What causes maths anxiety?
- How can I overcome my child’s maths anxiety?
All of these questions and more will be answered in this post by our primary teaching expert, so read on to find out more.
What is maths anxiety?
Maths anxiety is:
“A negative emotional reaction to mathematics, leading to varying degrees of helplessness, panic and mental disorganisation that arise among some people when faced with a mathematical problem.”
How many people reading that statement are sitting there saying ‘That’s me!’?
Well, that is the definition of maths anxiety, according to the Maths Anxiety Trust, but how many of us parents know that it’s a real thing?
From tortuous to teaching: How I dealt with my own maths anxiety
I remember finding ways to get out of maths lessons as a youngster.
My favourite ruse was to offer to tidy up the teacher’s cupboard – I even clearly remember stacking the maths textbooks neatly on the shelves, feeling inwardly smug that I did not have to open them and attempt the questions inside.
I recall my dad spending what seemed like hours with me trying to help me to understand negative numbers and how to calculate them – unfortunately, his pictures of eggs and egg cups didn’t help at all although I appreciated his efforts!
My relationships with my secondary maths teachers were never great – firing a huge elastic band into one’s eye really didn’t help (will always regret that) and spending most of the time chatting to literally anyone I was moved to sit with wasn’t exactly productive either.
In fact, at secondary school, I hated maths.
It was only when I became a teacher, and had to teach primary maths, that I began to understand maths for myself.
In order to teach it to the children I had to know what I was talking about, and by breaking things down into small steps, and by striving to understand the inner workings of the mathematical processes I was teaching, I became much more confident in maths.
In fact, I spent three years recently leading on maths throughout school and have written many articles about how to teach primary maths – that’s progress!
It’s also an encouragement: maths anxiety can be overcome.
But before we look at how to overcome it, let’s look at the facts and figures surrounding maths anxiety.
This is a fantastic video from the team at childline which explains what anxiety is in child friendly terms.
Does maths anxiety affect mathematics performance?
A 2018 Ipsos MORI poll found that 23% of parents of children aged 5-15 report that their eldest child often feels anxious when attempting to solve a maths problem, and that maths anxiety seems to be affecting the more recent generations.
The study found that 36% of younger (15-24 year-olds) people feel anxious about maths, compared to 10% of older people (65+), and some studies suggest that maths anxiety can begin very early when young children are learning basic number skills.
A fear of maths isn’t restricted by age, gender, or even position in school
In addition to the age based anxiety discussed above, it is also worth noting that girls are more likely to report maths anxiety than boys.
In another recent survey at two schools (a boys’ and a girls’ school), along with 25% of children in each school identifying that they suffer from maths anxiety, 20% of the staff in one of the schools said that they too experience maths anxiety.
This means that not only are our students feeling panicky with maths, but some of their teachers are as well.
Some research shows that when teachers experience maths anxiety they can pass it on to their pupils, especially in the case of female teachers and female pupils.
This shows just how far reaching maths anxiety is in the modern day, and illustrates why we need to pay it more attention than we currently do.
“Teachers, parents, brothers and sisters and classmates can all play a role in shaping a child’s maths anxiety.” – Ros McLellan, co-author on a paper on Understanding Mathematics Anxiety.
Maths often causes more anxiety than other school subjects
Many point out that we don’t treat reading the same as we do maths. For example we don’t say
“Oh I was never any good at reading.”
“Reading is too difficult for me.”
And yet, many of us say the very same things about maths.
Is this as a result of maths anxiety, or do these attitudes contribute to maths anxiety?
With negative feelings about maths being at a high, the proportion of adults with functional maths skills (equivalent to a GCSE grade C) has fallen from 26% in 2003 to 22% in 2011, which is a stark contrast with the 57% who achieved the equivalent in functional literacy skills.
Again, does this struggle with maths lead to maths anxiety or is it a cause of it?
What causes maths anxiety?
There are three theories that link maths anxiety and maths performance:
- Poor performance leads to higher maths anxiety (deficit theory)
- A vicious cycle: higher anxiety contributes to poor performance; poor performance contributes to higher anxiety (reciprocal theory)
- Maths anxiety leads to poor performance in maths (anxiety model)
At the moment there isn’t an agreement as to which of these theories, if any, is correct.
What is known is that the two are linked: if a child suffers from maths anxiety they are more likely to perform poorly; if a child performs poorly they are more likely to suffer from maths anxiety.
Overcoming maths anxiety at home
So what do we do for those children who, like a younger me, look at a maths problem and just see a swimming blur of numbers and symbols and feel a sickness in the pit of their stomach?
How do we help those who feel overwhelmed by a maths question to the point where they just want to cry out in anguish?
Fortunately there are a number of things you can do, and below I will be running through a selection of tips that you can use to help your child overcome their maths anxiety at home.
How to help your child overcome maths anxiety at home
Below is a list of some of the ways you can help your child to overcome their maths anxiety at home.
Make sure you do regular practice, little and often
Parents can sometimes expect too much of children at home after a day at school, and whilst it is important that practice is done, make sure you are not pushing your child to do too much.
10 minutes a day is better than a gruelling 45 minute session on a Sunday afternoon. This 10 minute maths activity is a prime example of something simple you can do at home to help your child.
This repeat, daily practice complements what we know about how we learn best: if we regularly have to recall something, drawing it out of our memory, then we are more likely to be able to remember it for longer.
We also know that we can suffer an overload in our brains if we try to do too much – especially too many different things – so try to keep the work focused on one or two mathematical concepts at a time.
Practice only what has been taught already
Don’t try to teach new things at home, especially if you are expecting your child to do most of the work on their own.
Homework for primary-aged children works best when it is follow-up of work that they have already done at school and when it is done with a parent.
Younger children do not yet have the self-regulation skills they need to sit down and complete a piece of homework themselves so it is important that if you want to help your child with their maths anxiety, that you accompany them.
Make maths a part of everyday life
Parents have a real opportunity to make maths real – arguably even more than teachers do at school.
For example, when you are out and about, doing the shopping, doing DIY jobs, cooking in the kitchen, and so on, there are plenty of opportunities to have maths-based discussions (you don’t always have to ask them questions).
You could help them to understand coin denominations when giving pocket money; ask them what the time is and talk about how long it will be until tea time; discuss when setting the table how, if each person has three pieces of cutlery, and there are five people eating, that there will be 15 pieces of cutlery on the table.
When you start to look for maths opportunities in everyday life you will start to notice them everywhere!
In a rush and want to come back to these points later? Save this handy infographic:
Make sure maths is interesting for your child
Not only can you look for the natural opportunities, but you can also introduce chances to talk about and explore maths.
Most board games, and many computer games, feature lots of maths opportunities.
Specific websites and apps are available packed full of maths-based games – some are free and some incur a small charge. There is some evidence that enjoyment is a good motivator and that children learn when they are happier so it is worth making maths into something that is fun.
Don’t pass on your own anxiety
Don’t tell your children that you were bad at maths.
This will only make them think that it is a legitimate thing to think and say.
You want them to feel like they can be good at maths, and that there are no reasons as to why they shouldn’t be. Ensure that they know this and help them to maintain a positive attitude, even when the going gets tough!
Try developing some affirmations (or Mathirmations, if you will!):
“I CAN learn my times tables.”
“I WILL be able to find fractions of amounts.”
“There is NO reason why I can’t be awesome at maths!”
and get them to practice saying them aloud – positive self-talk may help here.
Allow your child to talk about their anxieties
Talking of talk, it’s always a good idea to get those thoughts and feelings out in the open – a problem shared is a problem halved (nice mathematical saying there).
It actually seems that, for children who suffer maths anxiety, it is a good idea to do this directly before they attempt any maths – some research has shown that doing this helps people to go on to be more successful in the maths task at hand.
Children should be allowed to verbalise their feelings – often this can make them feel less like they are the only one who struggles.
Simply trying to quash any anxieties around maths is not a healthy way to deal with these feelings.
And remember, if it is indeed good to talk, it is also good to listen when children share these anxieties – ensure that they know and feel that they have been heard.
If your child mentions any maths terminology you are not sure of, take a look at our maths dictionary for parents to discover what it means.
Teach your child to ask questions when they don’t understand
This is crucial in the classroom and it is equally as important at home.
The struggling mathematician can often find it easy to hide their difficulties, finding ways to cope which don’t ever result in their better understanding.
In order to help children not to resort to these, foster the idea that it is OK to ask for help and that it is OK to make mistakes – reinforce the idea that we learn when we make mistakes and we learn when we ask for help.
Communicate with your child’s teacher
If you know that your child is suffering from maths anxiety then let their teacher know. Discuss with them potential strategies for both home and school and work in a partnership.
You may be able to help them to understand something that you know about your child that perhaps they don’t.
The teacher may be able to show you how you can help your child with a particular bit of maths that they are struggling with. By working together, you will have the best chance of helping your child to deal with, and overcome, maths anxiety.
Remain calm when it comes to maths anxiety
The most important thing to remember is to keep your cool if your child is showing signs of maths anxiety. At some point during their primary school life, most children will come up against a challenging area of mathematics and seem to struggle.
All you need to do in this scenario is remain calm, and use the tips you have learnt in the blog above to steer them through their troubles and help them come out the other side as confident mathematicians!