Maths anxiety can be experienced across different levels of education, in different jobs, within different cultures and across different ages, and it affects more people than you might expect. Dr Tom Hunt, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Derby, is researching why children experience it, and strategies for reducing it.
Maths anxiety is often associated with an avoidance of maths: you are more likely to avoid courses and jobs that involve maths if you are anxious about maths. We also know that maths can create a stress response in some people, with research showing changes in the brain of highly maths anxious children when they are required to engage in mathematical problem-solving.
Similarly, maths anxiety is also related to an increase in blood pressure that is directly proportionate to the difficulty of maths. What is perhaps only just being understood is the age at which this phenomenon begins.
Researching maths anxiety in young children
Working with colleagues Dr Dominic Petronzi, Paul Staples and Professor David Sheffield, we conducted research into what we termed numeracy apprehension in children aged four to seven, using focus groups to understand their experiences of numeracy inside and outside the classroom.
We studied 41 children from three different UK schools. While we found some evidence of positive responses to maths, our findings give real insight into maths anxiety in younger children:
Fear – importantly, we found that children as young as four experienced worrisome thoughts about working with numbers, and these seemed to have their foundations in a range of experiences and beliefs. For instance, young children can hold negative beliefs about their own maths ability and have a genuine fear of failure; this can often override any positive thoughts.
Avoidance – maths anxious children use avoidance to conceal difficulties in maths. Persistent avoidance can result in a vicious circle of poor performance and increased anxiety.
Anger or frustration – a maths anxious child will feel frustrated with what they perceive as difficult maths and may even express anger.
Coping strategies – children will sometimes resort to copying others’ work if they experience anxiety towards maths. Anxious feelings may increase if coping strategies are removed; a child unable to work with friends may worry they will be left behind. Parents are often relied on to support with homework, although children sometimes feel their parents make things worse.
Teachers – teachers can be viewed as figures of punishment from an early age, with children worrying about being told off if they get their work wrong or don’t complete it.
Competition – time pressure was a prominent theme throughout our findings, with many children expressing worry when their peers completed maths work before them. They would often be concerned when they arrived at a different solution to a maths problem. Children as young as five demonstrated an awareness of an in-class hierarchy in terms of perceived maths and numeracy ability, again often linked to speed of performance.
It’s no wonder that maths anxiety is so prevalent in older children when it can be observed in children as young as four.
Strategies for reducing maths anxiety in children
There are several reported strategies for reducing maths anxiety, but some which may be useful for children include:
Understanding the question – children will often say they understand a maths question when really they don’t (or they think they understand it but their understanding is incorrect). Spending time helping your child understand the task demands may pay dividends in the long-run. Asking them to describe the question in their own words can sometimes help.
Getting it wrong is good – while this might sound counterintuitive, even the best mathematicians sometimes get it wrong. Removing the fear of incorrect answers is key to reducing maths anxiety. Try to reward genuine attempts at maths problems, rather than getting the answer correct. Emphasise the importance of needing to sometimes get it wrong as it helps us learn.
Eliminate myths – maths anxiety is often related to certain beliefs about maths. Having an open discussion about (and not reinforcing) widely accepted myths may be helpful. For example, it’s not the case that boys are better than girls at maths, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will be poor at maths if you are good in other subjects, and maths is very much relevant to real life.
Growth mindset – encouraging a growth mindset might support maths anxious children. We often have a fixed mindset of “I just can’t do it”, when in fact “I can’t do it yet” is usually more apt. Maths is a broad topic and people usually have at least one area they find more challenging, such as shape, volume, geometry or algebra. Fragmenting things in this way may help to change a child’s mindset, providing them with evidence that they previously overcame challenges.
A graded approach – a child may have successfully mastered last week’s topic in maths, but last week can feel like a long time ago! Starting homework or lessons with very simple maths and gradually increasing the difficulty may be less anxiety-provoking than launching straight into a new topic.
Relaxation – some simple relaxation exercises can be helpful, whether that is proper, diaphragmatic breathing or a mindfulness approach which may take attention away from worrisome thoughts.
Instructions – be mindful of the instructions that are provided when supporting with homework or teaching a maths topic; even subtle variations can result in children viewing a task differently. Referring to a task as difficult or introducing unnecessary time pressure could make a child view it as threatening rather than a positive challenge. Encourage positive thinking, a growth mindset and avoid reinforcing negative messages such as “I was never any good at maths at school”.
Expressive writing – writing about their thoughts and feelings prior to doing maths can help children regulate their emotions. It may be a way of setting their thoughts aside, allowing the child to focus on the maths and not their thoughts. Obviously, this requires a certain degree of proficiency in writing; just speaking about thoughts and feelings may be beneficial but more research is needed to test this.
Our maths anxiety research
If you’re interested in measuring maths anxiety in young children, our validated self-report measure can be accessed by contacting the research team, or alternatively, read the paper in which the scale is reported.
Our chapter, Acquisition, development and maintenance of maths anxiety in young children, has been published in the new Routledge book Mathematics anxiety: What is known and what is still to be understood. Here we pay particular attention the large-scale qualitative research we conducted and reported previously.