Understanding and preventing maths anxiety
No time to read it all? Anxiety about numbers can affect any child and has a real impact on their ability to do maths. Get involved to provide solutions including calming techniques and appropriate practice to increase confidence and break the worry cycle.
What is maths anxiety?
Maths anxiety is the stressful feeling children experience when they are faced with numbers or calculations. It’s more severe than normal feelings of nerves that children might get ahead of tests or exams, and is much more debilitating.
How does maths anxiety affect children?
When kids are affected by maths anxiety, they experience some pretty horrible physical and psychological sensations when they are asked to work with numbers.
But that’s not all - the anxious brain produces cortisol which prevents part of the brain from working properly. Annoyingly, it’s the working memory that is most affected, which is the part of the brain that we depend on when we are doing maths.
Research shows that anxiety reduces ‘cognitive reflection’ or the ability to think things through, meaning that kids who are feeling anxious are more likely to get the wrong answer.
Things to look out for
Unusual nervousness and panic when asked to work with numbers
Anxiety symptoms such as feeling sick, shortness of breath, palpitations or headache
Lack of effort
Avoidance / giving up
Children who aren’t able to perform to their full potential because of the interfering symptoms of anxiety can develop a negative attitude towards numeracy (“I’m no good”).
This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when, in an effort to avoid both the physical symptoms of anxiety as well as the feeling of inferiority, children start to avoid maths. Numeracy requires practice - it is the key to building strong foundations in maths - and when children don’t get enough practice a vicious cycle can begin.
NB. When a child has a severe problem grasping counting and other early maths skills it's possible that an underlying issue such as dyscalculia may be causing the problem and related anxiety. This is something the school should be able to advise on.
What can parents do about maths anxiety?
1. Challenge beliefs
So much of performance in maths and numeracy is about attitude and how children perceive themselves. Studies have shown that confidence has a huge impact on performance, so if we can just increase children’s confidence in their own ability, that should prevent anxiety from becoming an issue.
This comes from good practice, as well as spotting and addressing weaknesses early on before they become a problem. At Komodo, we identify the elements that each child might be struggling with and tailor their learning programme carefully to build their confidence and set them up for successful learning.
Tackle the fear of failure
You’ll have often heard it said that the only thing to fear is fear itself. This is so true for maths, when the fear of getting the wrong answer can lead to children refusing to even try. What we can do here is remind kids that it’s okay to get things wrong. Reinforce the idea that everyone makes mistakes, including the brightest and best of us (even Einstein struggled at times!) and that making mistakes actually helps us learn more than if we get things right all the time.
The myth that people are either good or bad at maths is a damaging one, and it’s prevalent throughout our culture. Countries that place effort above any perceived innate intellectual ability do much better at maths. Encouraging your child to develop a ‘growth mindset’ can really make a difference here in reducing stress and producing resilient, confident learners.
2. Help your child cope with the physical symptoms
What we also want to do is deal with these distracting and invasive physical sensations that appear when anxiety raises its head so that children are able to focus to their best ability.
Encourage your child to practice relaxation techniques to remove some of those anxious thoughts and help kids get the physical reactions under control. (NB it’s a good idea to practice these when your child is calm and not already stressed!)
First, breathe deeply...
The first thing to do is teach your child how to do the sort of deep breathing that can have an impact on their physical anxiety symptoms. We’re talking here about deep breaths that fill the lungs from the bottom and make the stomach inflate. A good way to teach this is to have your child lie on their back with a favourite toy or teddy on their stomach, and practice moving the toy up and down as they breathe.
This anxiety reducing tool has been backed by psychologists. It’s quick and easy to do, and can be done anywhere. The first step is to identify five things you can see, then four things you can hear, three things you can feel, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. This helps the body relax and should make focusing that bit easier.
Numerous apps offer guided, age appropriate meditation and relaxation for children. This introduces them to the concept of mindfulness which is one technique to help students ignore the distractions that take up working memory space. We’ve tried Headspace and Cosmic Kids but there are lots out there.
3. Reframe it
Make it a challenge
Research has shown that we can change our performance when we are experiencing anxiety depending on how we frame it. For example, if kids look upon something as a threat they begin to feel out of control and as if they need to escape the situation. On the other hand, if they are told it’s a challenge and what they are feeling is excitement, they are able to perform better.
So much of performance in maths and at school is linked to how it is framed for kids. For example, if they’re told they will fail if they don’t work hard, anxiety levels tend to go through the roof, but if they’re told how well they can do if they work hard, it has the opposite effect.
Keep it real
Kids get less anxious about maths when it’s presented as something that people use every day. Show your kids how you use maths when you’re shopping (‘This costs £3, so if I give £5 I’ll get £2 back’) or when you’re sharing out sweets (‘We can all take six each,’) to make it less of a big deal.
Make it fun
You can also try to play games with a numeracy element to increase confidence with numbers and make working with them fun - we have some ideas for family maths games in our blog.
So let’s keep it positive, keep the pressure off and make maths a challenge, not a threat for our kids.
I’m Ged, Co-founder of Komodo, ex-maths teacher and dad. If you have any questions please get in touch.
About Komodo – Komodo is a fun and effective way to boost primary maths skills. Designed for 5 to 11-year-olds to use in the home, Komodo uses a little and often approach to learning maths (15 minutes, three to five times per week) that fits into the busy routine. Komodo helps users develop fluency and confidence in maths – without keeping them at the screen for long.
Find out more about Komodo and how it helps thousands of children each year do better at maths – you can even try Komodo for free.