What Is Maths Anxiety? And Can Your Child Overcome It?
Takeaway: Maths anxiety is a feeling of stress and fear that some children develop around anything to do with maths. It begins with an initial bad maths experience and gets better or worse depending on the other people in a child’s life. To help, we can teach children to become aware of the anxiety and develop key emotional regulation skills.
There’s great beauty in mathematics if you know where to look.
Maths is more than just a practical skill that we’re forced to learn as children. Sure, we might think of it only when we’re checking our change at the supermarket or planning our retirement investments. But it goes way beyond that. Because maths is everywhere. It’s part of the buildings we construct, the technology we innovate, the art we create, and more. For example, we can instinctively spot an attractive face, but what makes it attractive? Well, it’s the mathematical ‘harmony in proportions.’ I.e., the face’s height, width, and length are balanced just right. Maths is this deeply-rooted in everything around us.
Sadly, many children see only a limited version of true maths. And they associate it with anxiety, not beauty.
The maths we’ve been talking about is beautiful because we recognise how it’s connected to the world around us. Children often don’t get to see this, though. The maths they know — the maths of the classroom — is filled with overwhelming equations, rules, and high-stakes tests. And so, many children develop a deep-rooted fear of numbers and maths problems. Physically, this fear might show up as an increased heart rate, irregular breathing, nausea, sweating, and more. But the real problem lies in their emotional reaction. Their feelings of panic and helplessness make them shut down in class, do poorly in exams, and avoid all maths-related activities. Over time, this will affect their school performance and, later, their career.
Note that it’s the ‘mental shutdown’ (i.e., not maths as a subject) that’s the real problem.
Brain scans show that maths anxiety affects children’s working memory — i.e., the mental workspace that helps them problem-solve. So, even if they have the skills to tackle a maths challenge, they’ll need to restart their anxious, shut-down brain first. And this sets up a vicious cycle. They struggle with a maths problem, which makes them anxious. So, they start avoiding maths, don’t prepare for the next session, and struggle even more — which further reinforces their fear. It’s now the growing anxiety surrounding maths — not the maths itself — that paralyses them.
So, why are these initial triggering maths experiences so common? Well, it’s to do with the pressures of teaching maths in a classroom.
Maths is meaningful only when we see how it’s the driving force behind so many of our experiences. But teachers have schedules to keep and classrooms full of students with diverse needs. And it’s this high-pressure setting that fuels most bad maths experiences. For example, a child trying her best to solve a maths problem might get cut off or hurried along by a stressed teacher. This will be unsettling the first time, but if it happens often enough she might mistakenly assume she’s bad at maths. Similarly, a teacher who doesn’t love maths is likely to teach it poorly — but the child might assume it’s her own fault for lagging. And finally, we have the occasional teacher who may struggle to help the child. Whatever the case, maths anxiety usually starts with these sorts of unpleasant experiences that snowball into something much bigger.
An initial bad experience doesn’t always have to be a problem, though. It all depends on the child’s support system.
A child’s community plays a big role in making the anxiety better or worse. For example, if her classmates also struggle with maths, she’s likely to be less hard on herself. Or, if she can talk to her parents about her anxieties, they may be able to coach her through her fears. But it can go the other way, too. Perhaps her family thinks maths is a time-wasting subject that doesn’t help most ‘regular’ people? Or perhaps her friends think that studying or trying to get better at something isn’t cool? These attitudes will then subtly encourage her to ignore maths and run away from her anxieties.
But there’s something that can cancel out all these factors. And that’s a child’s ‘mindset.’
Even if a child has an initial bad experience and a poor support system, the right mindset can help her overcome maths anxiety. We’ve explored the concept of mindset in an earlier post, but think of it as being the way we make sense of the world. People with a fixed mindset believe that their skills and abilities are hardwired into them and nothing they do will change this. For example, a child with a fixed mindset might think, ‘I don’t have the maths gene, so I’ll always be bad at maths.’ But a child with a growth mindset will disagree. She believes that she’s continually evolving and can get better at most things. So, she’s more likely to think, ‘Maths is tough for me right now, but I can improve with a bit of help.’ It’s easy to see why a growth mindset can be a struggling child’s secret weapon, right?
Many parents wonder if extra tutoring will help with maths anxiety. And yes, it will. But only if we first teach children to become aware of their anxiety.
As we’ve seen, it’s not maths that’s the problem. What overwhelms a child is the anxiety surrounding the idea of doing maths. So, we’ll first need to help her recognise this anxiety and use emotional regulation skills to cope with it. Only then will better teaching techniques make a difference.
As parents, we can help by making maths a part of our child’s everyday life.
We can make maths fun again by showing children how it’s connected to everyday life. With younger children, we can play counting games (e.g., have them count out their pocket money). With older children, we can show how basic maths helps get things done around the house — for example, measuring the width of a sofa you want to move through a narrow doorway. Or calculating proportions when mixing ingredients for a cake. These are ways of associating maths with fun rather than with stressful classroom situations.
But remember to take things slowly and celebrate small victories.
Try not to overload your child with maths. Rather than teaching her something new, find ways of reinforcing what she’s already learned in class. For example, the cake-ingredients exercise will only stress her further if she hasn’t yet learned about ratios and proportions. The sofa-measuring exercise would be a much better option, instead. Similarly, encourage her to do a little bit of maths every day rather than trying to finish her homework in one or two marathon sessions a week. Help her slow things down and celebrate progress as it happens.
For more specifics on how to help your child with maths anxiety, consider consulting a specialist.
As we’ve seen, maths anxiety is less about maths and more about anxiety in general. So, a child psychologist has the type of training best suited to help your child. At The Ed Psych Practice, we offer face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:
- Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356
- E-mail: Office@TheEdPsych.com
Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.
- Why You Shouldn’t Ignore Your Child’s Learning & Attention Issues
- How to Talk to Your Child About Her Learning Differences
- Talking to Teachers About Your Child’s Dyslexia [Where to Even Start?!]
- What is Music Therapy and How Will It Help My Child
- Learning Differences: How to Unlock Your Child’s Hidden Potential
- The 4-Step Guide to Mental Toughness For Your Child
- How Will Working-Memory Difficulties Affect Your Child?
- Can We Improve Executive Functioning in Children With ADHD?
- What is Mindset? And How Can It Transform Your Child’s Life?