Do any of these sound familiar?

40% of students are anxious about maths at least ‘sometimes’, with 10% of primary and secondary school children being likely to experience high levels of maths anxiety. It’s almost certain you will have heard this type of student talk in your own school.

What is maths anxiety?
Maths anxiety is a negative emotional reaction to the subject – it is not a cognitive problem. We should not assume that maths anxiety equates to being poor at maths. In fact, many high attaining students can struggle with maths anxiety.

A child experiencing maths anxiety is likely to feel a range of emotions including frustration, anger and despair. These combined with physical symptoms such as butterflies and increased heart rate, mean the likelihood of flourishing reduces. Behaviourally, a child with maths anxiety might act out in a lesson, even to the extent of being removed, or become so tearful that leaving the classroom is the only option. These are just some of the reasons why maths anxiety might lead to poor maths performance and this in turn is likely to elicit maths anxiety, thus creating a vicious circle.

Maths anxiety and the brain
Working memory is used to store and manipulate information for short periods of time. Problem solving in maths requires a large proportion of working memory, but anxious thoughts burden this, using up capacity. Children with maths anxiety have been found to struggle to maintain and manipulate verbal information in this part of their memory hindering their ability to perform mathematical procedures.

What are the triggers?
The triggers for maths anxiety are complex. For example, in cases where maths anxiety worsens over time, a common trigger is the transition from primary to secondary school. It’s worth noting that for about one-third of children, maths anxiety starts alongside timed testing.

It’s important to note that all children experience challenges in maths, but those with maths anxiety feel less able to deal with these. Identified triggers include:

  • Perceived ‘hardness’ of the subject when compared to other subjects (many children are simply scared of getting a wrong answer)
  • Transition from primary school to secondary school
  • Emphasis on procedures rather than ‘sense-making’
  • Unfavourable comparisons with peers or siblings
  • Timed tests
  • Concern about lack of progress
  • Concern about peer evaluation
  • Teacher or parent with maths anxiety

The link between maths anxiety and maths performance becomes more entrenched in early adolescence.

Let’s take action!
This isn’t about diagnosing children with maths anxiety. Instead, it is about taking action to inspire all students in mathematics, removing the negative pressure they feel without removing the challenge.

Some people question how this can be done when all children, at some stage, face timed-pressured tests and exams. It’s important that these summative assessments are not our only focus but we also concentrate on consistently great classroom practice.

Before addressing this, as teachers we must be mindful of our own anxieties and beliefs. If we are anxious about aspects of maths, we need to tackle this. If we believe that maths ‘ability’ is innate and fixed, rather than malleable, it is likely that we transfer this to our students.

Jo Boaler has identified the following messages as being key in setting up positive norms in a maths classroom:

  1. Everyone can do maths to the highest levels
  2. Mistakes are valuable
  3. Questions are really important
  4. Maths is about creativity and making sense
  5. Maths is about connections and communicating
  6. Maths class is about learning not performing
  7. Depth is more important than speed

If we embed these norms, celebrating the learning journey, we start to build a culture of deep understanding, confidence and competence in maths – a culture that produces strong, secure learning and real progress. #MathsEveryoneCan

Want to know more? We’re running a ‘Facing Maths Anxiety’ workshop at our Summer Conference on 1st July in London. Book your place!

Selected references:
Boaler, J (2016) Mathematical Mindsets
Boaler, J (2015) Fluency Without Fear
Carey, E, Devine A, Dowker A, McLellan R & Szucs D (2019) Understanding Maths Anxiety, Investigating the Experiences of UK Primary and Secondary School Students, Centre for Neuroscience in Education, University of Cambridge.
Maths Anxiety Summit 2018, Summit Report and Key Messages, The Maths Anxiety Trust (2018)