It is unusual to hear about students having elevated levels of anxiety around a specific curriculum subject. ‘History Anxiety’, for example, is not an area of much (if any) academic research. But maths is a completely different kettle of fish altogether. Maths Anxiety is increasingly well researched and well documented, and it may surprise you to know that the majority of people who experience maths anxiety are not those with dyscalculia or numeracy difficulties.
There is a perception that maths is hard and unforgiving compared to other subjects- it’s black and white, right or wrong. And we live in a culture where it’s OK to joke about being ‘rubbish at maths’ in a way that we would never laugh about illiteracy. This is strange, since there is equally great emphasis on both English and maths teaching in schools and that these take up more curriculum time than other subjects.
Maths Anxiety has been described as a state of unease produced as a result of having to do a mathematical task. Some causes of this anxiety include negative experiences with maths in the classroom; having to complete a test or exam in maths; perception that a maths task may have a negative impact on self-esteem; pressure of time on having to solve problems in maths quickly and lack of support at home. The negative emotional reaction caused by having to do a maths task is likely to raise feelings of apprehension, frustration, fear and worry and in extreme cases can produce the fight/ flight/ freeze reaction associated with the anticipation of physical harm, such is the level of stress.
In our classrooms, we need to be aware of the signs that maths anxiety may be at play. Look out for the child who is so anxious that they cannot even consider engaging with maths learning (it might look like they are refusing to engage but actually they are communicating something much bigger by their non-participation). Keep an eye open for the young person who is flustered and seems not to understand, however many different ways are used to present the learning. Think about how your own attitude towards maths may be an influence on those learners in your own classroom or the children and young people in your home.
The anticipation of doing maths can raise anxiety, raised anxiety can affect memory capacity and this can have a knock-on effect on learning. Learning that is missed or misunderstood creates gaps in knowledge and understanding which can cause low self-esteem and a lack of confidence to ask questions for fear of being thought of as foolish. Fear impacts upon doing or the anticipation of doing maths…it’s a vicious circle!
Indicators of Maths Anxiety can be both psychological (e.g., low self-esteem, extreme nervousness, disorganised thought, difficulty recalling and retaining information) and physical (e.g., shortness of breath, increased heart rate, stomach and head aches, clenches fists, biting lips or nails). In a highly maths anxious individual, the anxiety could even lead to Emotionally Based School Avoidance (EBSA) if not recognised and the balance redressed.
So, how can we help our maths anxious learners to overcome their difficulties? One of the most helpful ways is by providing concrete materials, helping a young person to ‘see’ the maths will give them a better chance of understanding which will, in turn reduce anxious thoughts and feelings. Our maths curriculum in the UK often lends itself to becoming too abstract too quickly and this can be a cause of much anxiety among learners. It is really important for the learner to handle and manipulate apparatus as this will consolidate the learning and give them something to ‘hang their hat on’, as it were. Manipulatives are not just for our youngest children, they need to be available for use by everyone without fear of being laughed at or looked down on by others- sadly, in some schools this idea will require a culture shift, but it is vital that this happens, and that staff lead the way to both change and challenge where it is needed.
Another way to support highly maths anxious learners is by representing concepts pictorially. Diagrams, models and drawings help with visualising the concepts being taught. These work well if the learner can be taught to link the pictorial with the concrete, as mentioned previously. The focus here needs to be on supporting understanding rather than the rote memorisation of facts that are then unable to be used or applied in different contexts.
Encouraging our children to look for patterns and connections in their maths work is especially important, as is providing the space to make mistakes and learn from these as part of the process– it’s more than OK to get it wrong, that’s how we learn and develop. In fact, when we make mistakes in maths it fires synapses in our brains that actually make our brains grow!
Resilience and perseverance are key. We need to make our maths classrooms positive places where it is safe to try and try again. They should be places where maths is spoken about and thought about in a positive way and where we provide lots of opportunities for investigative, open-ended learning that encourages collaborative work, trial and error and sharing of ideas.
Considering the needs of children with Maths Anxiety and how they can best be supported is vital and adopting an ‘assess, plan, do, review’ (APDR) approach that takes on board pupil voice is best practice:
- Use of a Maths Anxiety Questionnaire can be a good starting point for pupil voice. There is a good example for use with children in Professor Steve Chinn’s ‘More Trouble with Maths’. The University of Derby have produced a brilliant tool, The Children’s Mathematics Anxiety Scale UK for use with children aged 4-7 as well as their Mathematics Anxiety Scale UK for older children and adults. In addition, Chinn has produced a Maths Anxiety Quiz for adults
- Think about environmental influences that may cause anxiety and mitigate for these e.g., by making use of concrete apparatus and pictorial representations part of usual classroom practice for all children; by valuing mistakes for what they can teach us; by building on what children already know at their developmental level, especially when this does not match age related expectations; by matching teaching to the preferred learning styles of the young people. Remember that initial experiences in maths form a dominant entry to the brain, so if the child’s first encounter with a new topic in numeracy is confusing, difficult to understand or frightening, everything else they learn about it will fall in the shadows of that off-putting experience.
- Plan for the child where they are at. If they are in year 8 but working at pre-key stage standards, teaching the year 8 age related expectations is likely to widen the gap due to the hierarchical nature of number. This is likely to increase levels of maths anxiety as well as lowering self-esteem.
- Make maths/numeracy learning fun. Include as many games as possible to introduce and reinforce new learning. This will help with the first experience being a dominant and positive entry into the brain.
- Pressure of time can raise anxiety levels in maths. If a time limit is not necessary, don’t impose one.
- Support children to look for connections and patterns in their maths work. Focussing on understanding rather than memorising will help to alleviate anxiety.
- Making and referring back to personalised maths dictionaries can be a powerful tool to build on existing knowledge, recap prior learning and be an all-round excellent memory jogger, reminding the child of what they have achieved and celebrating their learning journey so far.
- Revisit the assessment of Maths Anxiety- what has changed? What are the next steps?
- Include pupil and parent voice, coproduction is key to the APDR cycle and review needs to include all stakeholders
- What has been the impact of your assessment and subsequent plan for your learner(s)? How do you know? Think about qualitative evidence as well as quantitative assessment
Derby University have created a Maths Anxiety Crash Course that is based in the research of the Maths Anxiety Research Group (MARG)
Maths for Life and The Dyscalculia Network have created a video interview about maths anxiety
The Maths Anxiety Trust have a wealth of information and resources on their website
National Numeracy have produced a helpful overview of maths anxiety
WSCC Learning and Behaviour Advisory Team have produced a ‘Getting Started Guide’ to Maths Anxiety that can be found on the Tools for Schools website
Sarah Jones March 2023
Sarah Jones is a Learning and Behaviour Advisory Team (LBAT) Advisory Teacher. Sarah holds a Post Graduate Diploma in Dyscalculia Research and Practice from the University of Chester.