Maths anxiety is real. It’s a phenomenon that’s been recognised for over 50 years, and its effects extend far beyond the classroom.

Despite this, the phenomenon is poorly understood. Some parents and teachers aren’t even aware maths anxiety exists. Yet it causes significant barriers to engagement and performance in maths. For these reasons, it’s vital that parents and teachers understand the phenomenon, and how to support children who are anxious about maths.

In this article we’ll delve deeper into maths anxiety, exploring:

  • What it is
  • What causes it
  • How to spot maths anxiety in your own child

and, most importantly,

  • How you can help your child overcome their anxiety and succeed in maths

What is maths anxiety?

The Maths Anxiety Trust define maths anxiety as

“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.”

Maths Anxiety Trust

People experience maths anxiety in different ways, from a feeling of mild tension to a strong and deep-rooted fear of maths. Maths anxiety is not always obvious, and it can manifest as under-attainment or irritability which in turn causes further problems in school.

So how common is maths anxiety?

Maths anxiety is more common than you’d think. In a recent poll, 23% of parents with a child aged 5-15 reported that their child became anxious when asked to solve maths problems (Ipsos MORI, 2019). The same study also indicated that maths anxiety is more prevalent in younger generations, with 36% of 15–24-year-olds experiencing maths anxiety, compared to 10% of those aged over 65. The problems with maths begin early in a child’s education, with 1 in 10 8–14-year-olds feeling anxious about maths. Meanwhile, researchers from the university of Cambridge found that girls are more likely than boys to report maths anxiety.

What causes maths anxiety?

Many factors contribute to the emergence of maths anxiety, including fear of failure, fear of being left behind, peer pressure, and lack of sensitivity from adults. Researchers are still debating the origins of maths anxiety, and theoretical explanations of the phenomenon are often at odds with each other. For example, deficit theory says that poor maths performance leads to anxiety, whereas reciprocal theory describes a vicious cycle where high anxiety leads to poor performance, and even more anxiety.

One thing is clear, if a child is anxious their performance will suffer, and if they struggle with maths in school, they are more likely to experience anxiety. Which brings us neatly to our next point.

How can you help your child mange maths anxiety?

Maths anxiety is very real, but your child can beat it with the right support. Here are a few ways that parents can help their them banish those anxious thoughts for good.

1. Let them talk about their anxieties.

Give your child time and space to talk about their worries, especially if they have a key test or big piece of homework. Listen carefully, and don’t minimise how they feel – that will just make things worse. Sharing their feelings will help your child feel less like they’re the only ones who struggle and mean they’re more likely to succeed in the task at hand.

2. Do regular practice, but don’t overdo it.

Regular maths practice is important, but don’t put too much pressure on your child. School days are long and expecting too much from your child will only increase their anxiety. The key is little and often – aim for 10-15 minutes a day instead of an hour 4 times a week. Focus on one or two concepts at a time, this will help your child learn more efficiently.

3. Encourage your child to ask questions.

It’s not easy to put your hand up and ask questions in class. That’s especially true if a child feels like they’re the only one who doesn’t get it. Yet questioning is an essential part of better understanding. To help your child, reinforce the idea that everyone makes mistakes, and it is OK to ask for help.

4. Break the anxiety cycle.

If you struggled with maths, it’s tempting to share your experiences with your child. However, although honesty is usually the best policy, it could be counter-productive in this case. Telling your child that you too find maths hard or complicated will only serve to legitimise their fears. Instead, help them maintain a positive attitude. Practice positive self-talk and aim to make them feel that they CAN be good at maths.

5. Communicate with your child’s teacher.

Communication is key. If your child is anxious about maths, speak with their teacher straight away.

Sharing information and discussing strategies will help the teacher to understand your child, and in turn they could share tips for helping your child with maths problems. Collaborative working means your child will have consistent support, giving them a better chance of overcoming maths anxiety.  

6. Don’t introduce new ideas.

Don’t try to teach new things at home. Homework is more effective when it reinforces concepts that have already been taught in the classroom. Younger children, and those who are anxious, may need extra help to focus on homework, so make time to sit with them and support them while they do their work.

7. Make maths a part of everyday life.

Life is full of maths opportunities, and those opportunities help your child understand the value of maths beyond the classroom. Cooking, shopping, checking your change in the shop – there are so many ways that you can open a discussion about maths. For example, discuss how, if you give them £3 pocket money a day, they will have £15 pocket money after 5 days.

8. Make maths interesting.

The take home message here is this: make maths relatable. If your child can see the maths in the activities they already enjoy, they are more likely to embrace it. Think video games, movies, or sports. Even interactive activities like board games offer the chance to explore mathematics.

There are also plenty of apps and websites designed to teach maths in a fun, accessible way. A note of caution though, make sure the apps you pick aren’t riddled with ads or in-app purchases – they will only distract your child (and lighten your wallet). If you’re stuck, ask your child’s teacher to suggest some apps and programmes that will complement what your child learns in the classroom.

Need more support for your child?

Private maths tuition from George Alexander Tuition helps anxious children rediscover the joy in maths. Our 1-1 lessons are delivered at your child’s pace, at a time that suits them. Our tutors encourage students to ask questions and they promote a positive mindset. Above all, we make maths fun. If you’d like to chat about your child’s needs or book a maths tutor, email us at info@gatuition.com 


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