Maths Anxiety

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Do you avoid maths at all costs?

How do you feel when working out your change, splitting a bill between friends, or helping with your child’s homework?

I’m sure we can all recall witnessing children avoid eye contact, squirm in their seats or completely freeze when presented with a maths problem. On the other hand, maybe this is your reaction.

Although it is clear that many children and adults encounter difficulties in maths, the underlying cognitive and emotive factors are unclear. Maths anxiety is a debilitating emotional reaction to maths, often giving sufferers a feeling of tension that interferes with how they solve problems in both academic situations and ordinary life (Richardson and Suinn, 1972).

What does Maths Anxiety look like?

What came first, the chicken or the egg? Does maths anxiety cause poor maths performance, or does poor maths performance elicit maths anxiety?

Alternatively, there is another theory: both aspects influence each other in a vicious cycle further affecting future feelings towards maths.

Teachers can observe specific indicators of maths anxiety, such as:

  • Feelings of tension
  • Fear and apprehension
  • Negative mind-set towards maths
  • Feeling threatened
  • Failing to reach potential.

We have to take great steps towards addressing maths anxiety, principally because in a culture where it is considered okay to say you are ‘no good at maths’ and still taboo to say you find the same difficulties in reading and writing, it may have implications for our future society.

What implications does this have for our future?

The avoidance of mathematical situations can have far-reaching consequences for the sufferer and ultimately wider society. A reduction in mathematical performance can result in avoidance of traditionally mathematical further study, such as STEM subjects.

For children, performance in maths is reduced because paying attention to these intrusive thoughts acts like a secondary task, distracting their attention.

Lower attaining children are often working significantly harder when solving problems, relying on procedural fluency rather than conceptual understanding. In other words, they are holding everything in their heads compared to their higher attaining peers, who are able to see the interconnected beauty of maths and use this understanding to their advantage.

What can teachers do to help?

Strategies to help children with maths anxiety involve:

  • High expectations from teachers for all
  • Instilling confidence in children by displaying the notion that ‘everyone can do maths’
  • Teaching creatively for enjoyment and exploration in maths
  • A focus on the development of a positive attitude towards maths.

The ICCAMS (Increasing Competence and Confidence in Algebra and Multiplicative Structures) Maths project aims to support teachers in engaging children to gain competence and confidence in maths. Making maths relevant to children using realistic contexts and representations can provide support and make them feel confident again in maths.

The future for teachers and children

Although maths anxiety remains elusive to define and measure, teachers can support children by early intervention and instilling confidence in maths through creative and engaging problems. It is also important that teachers engage with evidence-based interventions and research to see ‘what works’ for their children.

About the author

Stephanie Raine is a qualified primary school teacher (QTS) who enjoys working with children of all ages in exploring mathematics. Her passion for helping children to explore and feel confident in mathematics is fundamental to her past academic career as a lecturer in mathematics education. She taught trainee teachers while completing her masters and starting her PhD.

Stephanie’s PhD on Mathematical Thinking centres on examining the concept of mathematical thinking, namely how using representations and making connections across mathematics can help children in feeling competent and confident in mathematics.

Her present role as a researcher at CEM’s (Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring) research centre at Durham University is an exciting opportunity that serves to bring together the practitioner and academic elements of Stephanie’s passions.

Find out more about:

The ICCAMS project, and CEM research.