Maths anxiety

Fiona Goddard explains why the next time a student exhibits listlessness, frustration and/or anger in one of your maths classes, it may be worth exploring whether their behaviour might stem from something deeper…

“Maths tends to be perceived as a subject where answers are strictly ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, which can breed a fear of failure”

Maths anxiety is a negative, emotional reaction to mathematics. What distinguishes it from lack of engagement or boredom with maths is that the latter relate more to the workings of the brain. The effects of maths anxiety will depend on its severity, according to a spectrum.

All of us will have likely experienced at least some degree of maths anxiety at some point – any occasion when we’ve reacted to a maths task in a negative way, which causes an emotional, almost bodily response within us that prevents us from taking on board new information or processing the task at hand.

Comfort zone

The effects of maths anxiety can easily go unnoticed by teachers, while manifesting in many different ways. You might perceive a pupil in your class to be poorly behaved, or observe them becoming angry or bursting into tears. Conversely, they could just as easily become extremely quiet and withdrawn.

Given the degree to which its effects can vary, it can be hard to pinpoint what might constitute a case of maths anxiety and what doesn’t. If there’s any commonality to it, it’s that maths anxiety is rooted in a distinct feeling – a horrible sensation of feeling completely out of your comfort zone. How you react to that feeling will very much depend on you as an individual.

The underlying causes of maths anxiety can sometimes be rooted in early childhood, depending on how maths was first introduced to you. Maths is a progressive subject that’s heavily dependent on learners being able to build on secure knowledge foundations. If, as can often happen, children develop significant gaps in their learning, some form of maths anxiety may well manifest at a later stage. Without the prior mathematical knowledge they need to understand a particular area or concept, they’ll have nothing to fall back on when questioned in a way which assumes that understanding.

Maths anxiety can also emerge from lived experience – perhaps a specific occasion when you were asked a question in class and didn’t know the answer, resulting in your peers laughing at you, teasing, or some other form of mild humiliation.

Fear of failure

Maths tends to be perceived as a subject where answers are strictly ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, which can breed a fear of failure. Children naturally don’t want to fail, dislike the feeling of failing and therefore don’t want to be seen as failing, which can present in class as reticence or withdrawal.

The most effective tool teachers have at their disposal for identifying and managing the effects of maths anxiety is the knowledge they possess of their students and familiarity with their behaviours. There can be many small indicators of maths anxiety – a reluctance to start work, spending too long on certain questions, homework that goes uncompleted – that could just as easily point to laziness on the part of students. Distinguishing one from the other can be difficult, but having a thorough knowledge of your students will always be a major help.

Developing a whole school awareness of, and approach to maths anxiety can go a long way towards tackling it, while also potentially addressing other issues. It could well be that a child’s long-term behavioural issues might actually be related to maths anxiety.

Perpetuating the cycle

As teachers, how we convey our feelings towards maths and other subjects can profoundly influence how others see them. I once observed a teacher who admitted to their class, ‘I’m not very good at fractions.’ By saying that, they immediately gave tacit approval for some of those students to develop an aversion to that particular area of maths, or even maths in general.

How maths is perceived and discussed is an issue that extends far beyond schools and out into wider society. It’s not entirely clear why, but many seem to have no compunction about saying ‘I can’t do maths,’ whereas very few are prepared to admit they can’t read or write. There’s a broad social acceptance around rejecting or avoiding maths that can make efforts at tackling maths anxiety significantly harder.

This often feeds into exchanges with parents concerning their children’s progress in maths. I can recall conversations I’ve had with parents where I’ve carefully broached the issue of them describing their own weaknesses in maths to their children, and explained that all they’re doing is essentially perpetuating the same cycle. The truth is, we can all succeed and do well at maths.

One way of remedying this can be to make elements of your maths provision readily available to parents so that they can review it themselves before trying to support their children at home. If those parents are themselves affected by deep-rooted maths anxiety, a useful form of support could be to set up parent/child after-school maths clubs (though the practicalities involved with this are naturally somewhat difficult at the present time).

Curriculum concerns

It could be argued that the increased difficulty of the maths curriculum in recent years has contributed to a rise in maths anxiety. Schools and parents have been told that maths expectations at every level have been raised compared to a decade ago, which will naturally feed into people’s perceptions of maths as being something that’s already hard, and only getting harder.

Maths anxiety is also more likely to develop, grow and cause problems when students are left to work through things on their own. The use of peer-based and collaborative activities can help build a sense of confidence and culture of enquiry among students that keeps their anxieties at bay.

That said, there may come a point with some children where the nature and intensity of their maths anxiety calls for some intervention. If their maths anxiety is sufficiently severe, it will clearly show in their outcomes and rates of progress. In these instances, just the one-to-one itself – perhaps with a tutor or a support assistant – can result in a useful confidence boost.

To do the most good, however, any such interventions will need to take a twofold approach. The first order of business will be to work out precisely where their learning gaps are, and how they can be best supported with those in order to get their progress back on track. Secondly, they should be provided with strategies on how to reduce their stress levels when their anxiety makes itself known.

The process is almost akin to travelling in zones. Students are given a piece of work that feels familiar to them, as a result of which they’ll feel comfortable and able to develop the confidence to work independently. The next step can be to introduce them to something new, but with support mechanisms in place – perhaps peer work. The way to confront maths anxiety is to help students recognise those different zones, and what it is that specifically triggers their anxiety. With those identified, the process becomes one of devising strategies they can use to reduce stress and move beyond the anxiety they feel.

About the author

Fiona Goddard is a senior education consultant at Whizz Education, developer of the Maths-Whizz virtual maths tutor; for more information, visit whizzeducation.com and whizz.com, or follow @MathsWhizzTutor

Try this:

  • Rather than focusing only on end results and final answers, try teaching lessons where the focus is instead on the workings, and the process of getting to those final answers.
  • The levels of abstraction in maths can sometimes result in very ‘procedural’ lessons that are hard for students to engage with. By using manipulatives, diagrams and clear representations that put maths into a meaningful context, you can give the subject a greater sense of purpose that aids students’ understanding.
  • Sometimes we teachers just need to slow down. Think carefully about how your questions to the class are phrased, and allow students time to respond and reflect on the correct answers once they’ve been revealed.
  • Posing ‘low entry questions’ can do much to improve the confidence of students with anxiety; if they’re able to think, ‘Oh, I can answer that,’ it can help build their resilience in class.

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