What is maths anxiety?
Everything you need to know and how to overcome it
Do you feel nervous and insecure when you are put in the spotlight to do mathematical calculations? Or do you have a child who dreads going to maths class, avoiding it at almost any cost? Then you might have first-hand experiences of maths anxiety.
Maths anxiety is the frustrating feeling about the experienced inability to perform mathematical functions. In short, maths anxiety is a fear of maths that can limit a person’s maths performance in certain situations and contexts. The level of anxiety can vary from person to person, so also how the anxiety manifests. Contradictorily to what some people believe, maths anxiety is not linked to intelligence or ability – anyone could experience it. However, maths anxiety is more common than you might think, with researchers estimating anywhere between 6-17% of the population experiencing maths anxiety.
One way of noticing, understanding, and overcoming maths anxiety is by getting more knowledgeable about it. If we recognise its symptoms and causes, we can also treat and prevent them.
To help you understand maths anxiety, we have gathered information on the importance of talking about maths anxiety. This includes both the symptoms and causes of maths anxiety, as well as hands-on tips and tricks on how to help someone overcome their maths anxiety.
Why talk about maths anxiety at all?
Maths anxiety is a real problem, not only a dislike for the subject. It is not about accepting that some students are struggling with- or dislike maths more than others and might end up with lower grades in that subject. The truth is that maths anxiety can result in more negative effects than you first might think, both short and long term.
Short- and long-term effects of maths anxiety
For more short-term negative effects, research has proven that the experience of maths anxiety can interrupt the working memory that we need to learn and solve problems. That interruption can put us in a negative spiral that reduces our capacity to successfully participate in mathematics, leading to more error-making that feeds the maths anxiety.
People who regularly experience these effects when engaging in mathematics are more likely to avoid it. Not only does this affects future learning possibilities, but it can also cause long term adverse effects. One example is when people who suffer from maths anxiety move away from mathematics opportunities and career pathways.
What are the signs and symptoms of maths anxiety?
On the topic of maths anxiety, some people argue that maths anxiety is just a way of excusing a dislike of maths. In fact, it is, of course, possible to dislike the subject of mathematics without suffering from maths anxiety.
Maths is like other subjects, and some people are more interested in it than others. If you want to understand if someone has mathematics anxiety, these are the signs and symptoms to observe. If we want to prevent maths anxiety, we first must recognise how to spot it. So here are some signs and symptoms of maths anxiety:
If someone actively and repeatedly avoids maths, that could signify maths anxiety.
Some people grasp any reason or excuse to skip maths, regardless of if it is in the setting of a classroom, homework session or even in the professional work life.
Avoidance could be more than just trying to get out of work – and instead be a sign of maths anxiety. People with high levels of maths anxiety tend to avoid mathematics in all kinds of ways.
Suppose your child tends to avoid going to maths class or repeatedly stays at home with sickness on test days. In that case, this could be a sign of your child experiencing high levels of maths anxiety.
However, according to researchers, avoidance is also the most unfortunate and pervasive tendency among people with maths anxiety. It can, if ignored, lead to a negative spiral of avoiding maths that continues throughout a lifetime. That spiral could affect everything from results from higher education, career paths, negative self-perceptions, and continuously negative attitudes towards mathematics.
Lack of response or emotional outbursts
You use your working memory whenever you can think about and remember multiple things simultaneously. As mentioned before, maths anxiety negatively affects our working memory – needed to learn, imagine, and solve problems.
When a person is experiencing maths anxiety, the anxiety and stress it’s causing are using all their working memory. That makes it almost impossible for them to think clearly.
Not only does this affect the feelings towards the subject, but it can also literally make it impossible to solve a maths problem, leaving a person stunned and frozen. This reaction could also happen even if they know the answer to the mathematical problem. It is not the maths itself that stands in the way – it is the stress and fear caused by the anxiety.
On the other hand, whilst some react to maths anxiety by apathy, others show more emotional signs such as bursting out in tears or having an outburst of anger. Either way, if apathy or big emotions tend to only appear during maths, the reaction could be a sign of stress caused by maths anxiety.
A spiral of negative self-talk and low achievement
People with maths anxiety tends to very hard on themselves and have negative thoughts about both their own maths abilities and the subject of mathematics. This sign can sometimes be hard to spot since this negative self-talk could happen only in their head.
However, it’s not entirely uncommon for a person who suffers from maths anxiety to communicate and share these comments out loud. Some ways in how these can sound like are “I hate maths”, “I’m just not a maths person”, “I’ll never be able to solve this” or “I suck at maths”.
One thing to remember is that it’s not only about getting answers to maths problems correct or not. People with maths anxiety tend to be very hard on themselves. They might assume that being good at maths also includes, for example, being able to answer maths questions quickly. Even if they know the answer, not knowing it fast enough can nurture the anxiety.
People who have a constant voice in their head that tells them that they are not good at maths eventually affect their achievement within the subject.
Since they tend to avoid the subject, they get less exposure to maths than their peers and get less correct answers on assignments and assessments. This leads to lower grades which becomes labels of confirmation that verify their belief that they have fewer maths skills than others and just can’t do maths.
What’s even worse is that they eventually let the poor maths grades define their identity, affecting them for the rest of their lives.
What are some of the common causes of maths anxiety?
Finding an answer to what causes maths anxiety is almost impossible. Since maths is all around us and embedded in nearly everything in life, almost infinitive factors could influence a person’s perspectives and feelings of maths. However, here are some primary causes that can trigger maths anxiety.
Missing an important learning milestone
Maths anxiety in children often develops when they don’t master early basic maths skills and expects to continue learning additional maths concepts. This can cause a toxic cycle of underachievement.
A child doesn’t understand a mathematics concept, gets anxious about mathematics, is more likely to avoid it, misses important learning milestones and falls behind their peers. The initial anxiety increases and the cycle repeats itself.
Influences from adults such as teachers and parents
As adults in children’s lives, we sometimes forget about our significant influence on the young generation. Since maths anxiety is vastly common, it is no surprise that many parents and teachers are suffering from maths anxiety themselves.
For example, a parent might say, “I’m not a maths person, but look at me – I still managed to get a job and provide for you” to their child.
We all understand that the saying comes from a place of love and care, a willingness to make the child feel better about themselves and don’t have to be the best at everything in the world. However, it can leave the child with the opposite effect, signalling that they can’t succeed in maths.
And even if the child sees their parent as successful without having a tremendous mathematical background, that could reinforce the idea that the child doesn’t need maths.
When it comes to teaching, teachers play a prominent and vital role. For example, if a student is experiencing maths anxiety, pressure is put upon their teacher. Not only to recognise the signs of maths anxiety – but also to have the time, tools and will to help these children break their anxiety cycle.
Fear of being wrong
Maths anxiety can be affected by an early negative experience of maths. An example could be being scolded or punished by a parent or teacher for failing to master a mathematical concept. It could also be feelings of embarrassment in front of others, such as family members or peers.
This situation could have been nothing remarkable to an adult based on the smallest mistakes.
However, to the young person, on the other hand, it could have left a lasting impression of not being enough.
We can compare maths anxiety o the fear of public speaking and the stress that might result. Both public speaking and solving maths problems involve performing, with the possibility of not performing at a level that meets the expectations of oneself or others.
However, we have been taught that maths problems have right or wrong answers with maths. That notion leaves less or no room for mistakes, raising the bar of what we regard as a good performance.
Furthermore, the fear of public speaking is not limited to children but also affects adults. So does maths anxiety.
Time pressure and risk of public embarrassment
Another factor that could be a reoccurring cause of maths anxiety is a time-limited situation that involves maths. This situation is not seldom connected to the risk of experiencing public embarrassment.
However, even if a person has no problems solving maths problems in general, a time limit could leave them without confidence and skills. This could show in, for example, time-limited maths tests or when asked to answer to solve a maths problem on the spot in front of others.
Finally, cultural bias can also affect maths anxiety. It could be opinions in the media, among peers, and in popular culture that implicates that someone’s, for example, gender or background is linked to that person having a lower ability in maths.
How can I help my child understand and overcome their maths anxiety?
Sometimes we get the question of if it is possible to overcome maths anxiety. Of course, the answer is always yes! But as with all other kinds of emotions and types of fears, it requires some dedicated work to break the negative cycles of maths anxiety.
Understanding what maths anxiety can look like
The first step towards helping a person overcome their maths anxiety is understanding what it looks like and when it occurs and why it happens. Sometimes, and often with children, we might need to help them identify the answers to questions about their maths anxiety.
One way of doing this is by utilising the child’s imagination to describe mathematics. They could also express the feeling they are experiencing when doing mathematics and what things best represent how they think about the subject.
Explanations could be done with drawings, texts, and speech, depending on the child’s age and their preferred method. Then, when we understand the negative cycle of someone’s maths anxiety, we are better prepared to help that person break out of the cycle.
Can maths anxiety be turned into something positive?
The discussion about maths anxiety tends to focus on the negative sides of maths anxiety, which makes sense since anxiety is an unpleasant feeling we want to avoid.
However, one way of reframing and evolving the topic of maths anxiety and how people value their own maths anxiety can be to acknowledge its positive qualities.
“How can it be any positive qualities of experiences anxiety?” you may ask. Well, maths anxiety does have a very constructive aspect – only someone who values mathematics in a certain way can experience maths anxiety.
A person who does not appreciate mathematics, on the other hand, does not feel fear. That person experiences apathy. In that sense, everyone with maths anxiety cares about being confident and trusting their maths abilities. By acknowledging and understanding this, starting to break the cycle of maths anxiety might feel a tiny bit easier.
Four easy tips to support children maths learning and overcome maths anxiety
With all this knowledge and insights about maths anxiety, here is some hands-on advice on how you can help children overcome maths anxiety:
Reframe your language and attitude to maths
As mentioned before, many adults have a terrible relationship with maths, which quickly gets transferred to the children and can create a bad start for the relationship between the children and mathematics.
Children copy what adults do and say. If we start to talk more about maths positively with our children, they will eventually do the same. Even if you don’t like maths or find yourself comfortable with it – try to address maths as fun and positive.
As a bonus, your new way of talking about maths could also positively affect how you think about maths.
Make maths positive and fun
As we need to learn and practice maths for a long time to master it, the exercises need to be captivating and engaging. In addition to this, positive reinforcement could also be beneficial.
You can help make maths magical, positive, and fun by talking maths with children every day and introducing a game element or challenge with your children. For example, when reviewing homework with your child, focus on the answers they got right – emphasising correct answers rather than the wrong ones.
Another way of making maths fun is connecting it to the child’s or family’s interests. For example, by painting by number for a child who loves drawing or identifying shapes as you take your daily walk or travel in the car.
Practice maths in short bursts
Practising maths at home doesn’t need to require a lot of time or effort. As maths is all around us, you can incorporate it into almost anything you do. All it takes is a bit of imagination!
You can, for example, let your child count or weigh the ingredients when cooking or collect numbers of leaves when on a walk. However, as younger children have short attention spans, keep it short – aim for a maximum of 15 minutes per session.
As with any other skills, maths skills are acquired by continuously practice. Therefore, keep study sessions short and reoccurring, rather than long and seldom. As the child becomes fluent and competent in maths, their confidence grows.
And finally, anything is better than nothing. Remember that 5 minutes of maths practice a week is better than none. So overcoming maths anxiety is not done by adding the extra pressure of every day never-ending maths practice.
Think beyond traditional techniques
As a parent, it can feel like you’re on your own trying to guide your children’s education and development at home. However, there are so many tools and resources that can help you! For example, screen time doesn’t have to be something terrible – you can turn it into something valuable and informative that builds their knowledge and skills.
For example, plenty of YouTube videos incorporates counting and numbers. There is also a wide array of maths apps on the market. Explore them together with your child.
Another way of thinking beyond the traditional pure mathematics exercises is by incorporating a game such as Count on me!
By packaging something fearful (maths) into something that children enjoy (a gaming adventure), Count on me! make screen time both educational and entertaining in equal measure.
The exercises in Count on me! adapt to your child’s knowledge and previous maths skills, ensuring that they are always on the right difficulty level. And the best part of it all – you can enjoy the maths adventure together!
Learn more about maths at home
What to do if your child is struggling with maths anxiety Do you feel anxious when faced with a mathematical problem? You’re not alone! Estimates