Maths anxiety is real and impacts people’s lives. Failing to address it is not an option as our world is inherently mathematical and our children need to be confident where maths is concerned. By taking some simple steps, we can support every child in their maths confidence.

What is maths anxiety?

Maths anxiety is a recognised condition when fear stops us from responding positively to any maths-related activity. It is ‘caught’ through negative attitudes to maths. Worryingly, it masks our natural ability for maths. The working memory of the brain gets so stressed that it defaults into ‘fight or flight’. The brain finds it impossible to solve problems or think clearly about what strategies to use.

Such cognitive and affective aspects of maths anxiety make the condition a misery during school and beyond. As a maths anxiety sufferer throughout school, I always worried about my potential failure to cope with a mathematical task. I would feel tense or even angry and get huge mental blocks, resulting in low achievement in mathematics throughout my school life.

The effect of maths anxiety on maths achievement

While adults’ maths anxiety may not necessarily cause children’s maths anxiety, it does claim to be the ‘source of low maths achievement’ in children as young as 9 years old. This is because adults with maths anxiety may avoid discussions related to maths and be less likely to instigate them. With fewer mathematical opportunities, children will find it more challenging to create their own strong mathematical strategies which in turn will result in poor maths achievement. Poor maths outcomes literally pass from one generation to the next.

Maths anxiety in the early years workforce

Not surprisingly, and backed up by recent research, there is a substantial cohort of early years practitioners with maths anxiety. Could this affect practitioners’ own maths content knowledge and pedagogy? What about maths learning environments in the setting?

A childminder spoke frankly to me about her mathematical competency. “I’ve never been very good at maths and I feel like I’m letting the children down. I don’t enjoy providing a mathematical environment as much as other areas of learning because I don’t have the same confidence.”

A starting point for eradicating maths anxiety

First of all, we need to realise that maths anxiety is widespread in all age groups, affecting more than three-quarters of our UK adult population. It is complex, emerging as a result of many predisposing factors, such as cognitive abilities and gender (more females than males have maths anxiety) or a general predisposition towards anxiety.

Points to remember

Teachers and parents need to be aware that:

  • Maths anxiety causes increased heart rate, clammy hands, upset stomach, and even light-headedness.
  • Anxiety interferes with maths performance, driving it lower; this increases the anxiety.
  • Math anxiety impairs mathematical cognitive processes.
  • People who have higher levels of maths anxiety tend to have higher levels of general anxiety.
  • Brain activity experienced during maths anxiety is the same as those suffering physical pain or extreme phobias.
    Thought processes that cause maths anxiety need different intervention strategies to cognitive issues.
What steps can we take?

First of all, we need to address any maths anxiety in ourselves and our setting. How maths anxious are we?

Maths anxiety test for parents and teachers

Read these statements to identify your negative or constructive thought processes about maths:

Negative thoughts cause a stress reaction which effectively ‘freeze’ the thinking brain. We panic and “can’t do it”! Neuroscience shows that the brain can rewire itself from these negative thoughts if we intentionally change our thought patterns. This is easier said than done. Changing thought patterns requires repetition, rather like learning a new language.

Here are four key habits to help change our negative thought processes about maths:

  1. Think positively about maths!
  2. Talk positively about maths!
  3. Consider maths as a language or a piece of music. It has to be practised repeatedly in order to be fully grasped.
  4. Mistakes are inevitable and important! They are part of the learning process.
Growing maths confidence

Maths confidence grows when children enjoy listening and exploring, are encouraged to take the initiative and, are excited about what they are doing. Children need to be able to make mistakes, get it wrong, and still be curious and excited about what they are doing.

Alan Turing, maths genius, had a report card at school that read, “He must realise that ability to put a neat and tidy solution on paper – intelligible and legible – is necessary for a first-rate mathematician”.

Let’s be clear here. We don’t need to be ‘neat and tidy’ perfectionists where maths is concerned. Let’s create maths opportunities where children can get messy, start investigating and develop that all-important growth mindset for learning. Maths is a glorious language to be learned, spoken and communicated. Let’s start a maths revolution and stop the spread of maths anxiety in its tracks. There is simply nothing to be anxious about!

About the author:

Helen is a mother of 4 and a committed and experienced early years consultant. She is Education Director at Arc Pathway, a sensitive profiling and next steps early years platform for teachers and parents. She has a wealth of experience in teaching, both in the primary sector and early years, co-founding and running her own pre-school in 2005. Helen has written books for the early years sector, including Developing Empathy in the Early Years” (winner of the Nursery World Awards Professional Book Category 2018) and Building a Resilient Workforce in the Early Years” (Early Years Alliance 2019). She regularly writes for early years publications such as Nursery World. 

Helen can be contacted via LinkedIn.

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