How Can I Tell if My Child Has Maths Anxiety?

posted on 10th November 2021

What is maths anxiety?

Maths anxiety is where your child gets panicky or frightened at the thought of doing any maths or attempting a maths problem.

It’s more than just not liking maths; it is having a strong response to it – the same as a child might if they thought a monster was in their cupboard or if they are frightened of the dark. If a child has maths anxiety, as soon as they get stuck or think they won’t be able to do the maths, they will panic and feel overwhelmed and nervous.

More than likely, a child who has maths anxiety will behave in a certain way to try and escape the situation. This behaviour depends on your child’s normal way of behaving when they are scared.

Let’s first look at how these behaviours may come out in the classroom.

Withdrawal: Some children will withdraw from the situation as much as possible. In a classroom they may go quiet, be afraid to ask for help and stay as still as possible trying not to attract attention to themselves

Seek a relationship to distract: Some children will need to feel connected to their friends to ward off the anxiety, they may turn to chat with their friends or someone they feel comfortable with. The conversation topic won’t matter, it is just the act of having a conversation with someone that makes the child feel safer.

Purposefully going off track: Classrooms can be places full of distraction at the best of times, but children who feel nervous when it comes to maths can intentionally go off track and try to put their focus onto something else. This might be moving to a colouring exercise when colouring wasn’t required, getting up and walking around the classroom when they should be sat in one place, suddenly (and frequently) needing the toilet or remembering something they think is important but is really a distraction task.

Being naughty: Some children will be so overwhelmed by their maths anxiety they would rather get told off, sent out of the classroom or sent to the headteacher than do the maths work in front of them. They may act the class clown and enjoy the comradery they get from their friends. Some children may refuse to do the maths altogether and seem overly defiant.

It is important we remember that this way of behaving is communication, the child is communicating in the only way they know that they are struggling and feel ‘bad’ when they are asked to do maths.

If you are called into school to talk about your child’s behaviour or told your child needs to join in more in the classroom, make sure you ask the teachers if this behaviour is happening in all the classes. If it is just happening in one class (e.g. maths) than that is a strong indication it is maths anxiety driving the behaviour.

What would maths anxiety look like in your home?

Maths anxiety often comes in the forms of tears and tantrums when it comes to homework. Perhaps you are doing a few maths questions with your child, they seem fine when they start, but as soon as it gets hard or your child thinks they can’t do it, they get upset, frustrated or tearful and the homework task becomes a battleground.

A lot of children can hold in their emotions when they are in the classroom. However, when they get home back to the place they feel safest, they tend to let it all out. So, where a child may be quiet in the classroom and the teacher says they are a delight, they may become full blown snotty nosed raging monsters as soon as the maths homework is brought out.

The trick to recognising maths anxiety is the reaction being extreme in comparison to the situation. Your child might not like doing maths, so they may put it off or begrudgingly start the homework after you have reminded them a few times. However, if your child is getting upset and unable to contain their feelings about doing the homework, it is likely there is an underlying issue of maths anxiety,

What causes maths anxiety?

Anxiety is our body’s way of sending a signal that something is wrong. This is helpful if we are in a situation where we are in danger. In times gone by, if we are being stalked by a lion, we need anxiety to send that warning signal that we are in danger, to heighten our senses and to help us react with all our wits to save our lives. However, when we have a piece of paper, a pen and a few numbers and symbols on a piece of paper in front us, we are not in any physical danger at all. However, maths anxiety is where we are getting strong overwhelming signals that we are approaching danger and need all our wits about us to survive it. So, what possible danger could some children be warding off?

Thinking you need to know rather than work it out.

The psychologist Carol Dweck talks about having a fixed or growth mindset. A fixed mindset is where you view and experience the world as being made up of things you can do and things you can’t. Someone with a fixed mindset will be focused on intelligence and have core beliefs that you need to be clever or very intelligent to do maths. Whereas someone with a growth mindset will know that you can learn anything and they will love challenges because they will love learning. Someone with a growth mindset will know that anything that is hard is just new, once you practice a few times, it will click into place and you will learn that part of the maths. People with growth mindsets will not see maths as something you know, they will see it as something that needs to be practiced and worked on to learn.

Unfortunately, the early focus on rote learning of times tables and maths facts can have the detrimental effect of teaching our children from a very early age that maths is something you should ‘know’ rather than something you should ‘work out’. This doesn’t help the student and can lead to maths anxiety in many cases.

Self-identity tangled in schoolwork.

Some children who believe they are not clever enough or good enough at their schoolwork will feel anxious when they are doing a subject they initially find difficult.  As maths is a building block subject, meaning that learning is built upon blocks of previous knowledge, if the child has missed a block or found one more difficult to grasp they will constantly feel they cannot do the subject. If their identity is tangled up in how they perform at school or they feel less than their peers in the classroom, doing a subject that makes this ‘unworthiness’ visible will cause tremendous anxiety and self-esteem issues.

Fear of exposure.

All of us like to hide away bits about ourselves we might not like or things that might make us feel silly. If you’re not a great dancer I doubt you will want to dance in public, if you have never been taught to draw I doubt you will want to publicly display your drawings. Why should children learning maths be any different? If a child has a core belief that they are not good at maths then joining in the activity and having a teacher, parent or educator mark the work will cause nervous exposure for the child. If not being good at something has been falsely linked to not being a good enough or a lovable person, then the maths exposure will cause huge anxiety. Remember that anxiety is not rational, it is emotional and illogical. I can’t tell you how many times I have been sat next a child who is truly loved by their parents and I hear that child say they are worried their parents won’t love them if they fail a maths test.

Being overly tested.

Overly testing children, such as times tables tests, or regular classroom tests can heighten maths anxiety for some children. Their anxiety gets worse with every test and increases their fear of exposure and being humiliated by a bad score. These children will be better off without classroom tests and having their work returned without scores on them.

Why do we need to think about maths anxiety?

We need to have more conversations and think more carefully about maths anxiety in schools as children may be labelled as naughty, shy or bad at maths when in reality they are anxious.

Just imagine if your academic ability was being assessed on being able to take care of an animal. You think you can handle this task; you know what to do, but then you find out the animal you need to take care of, and handle is a giant tarantula. There are only a handful of people that will cope well, the rest of us will be terrified and our anxiety about picking the spider up would sky-rocket and we would be terrible at the ‘looking after the animal’ task.

Or imagine your intellectual ability is being assessed on how well you can dress yourself in the morning. This is a really easy task; we have all been getting dressed for many years. However, what happens if you suddenly develop an intense fear of touching buttons (koumpounophobia), and you have been asked to put on your shirt and trousers that both have numerous buttons. Your anxiety would take over and you wouldn’t be able to touch the buttons to dress yourself.

Whilst the two examples are quite extreme, maths anxiety disrupts the maths assessment. Very often we are assessing the  child’s anxiety about maths and not their ability. Moreover, maths anxiety is lifelong unless it is treated and supported. If you had 100 adults in a room, around 40% of them would have sweaty palms and begin to panic when they are told there is going to be a maths test and everyone is going to be told each other’s scores. That is 4 out of 10 children in a classroom at risk of maths anxiety.

How can we help children with maths anxiety?

The main way to help is to have tutors and educators who know about anxiety and can see it in the child, no matter how this anxiety is presented. Whilst the educator is supporting with the 1:1 maths tutoring, they need to provide support with any anxiety that arises, and calming fears connected to the maths.

Most tutors who work with children who have maths anxiety will quickly learn the triggers each child has and work hard to get in front of those fears to minimise the maths anxiety. These tutors know that the maths anxiety is illogical and that the child is trying to protect themselves.

By using sensitive tutoring, your child can learn that there is nothing to be frightened off and begin to feel confident with maths. All these feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem will fall away, your child can start to enjoy maths challenges and have greater confidence in other areas of life.

Sometimes we need to open the cupboard to show a child there really isn’t a monster hiding in their wardrobe. We need to start tutoring maths in a more sensitive way that removes the monster from the maths too.


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