What is maths anxiety?

In their study of anxiety and mathematics, Tobias and Weissbrod described maths anxiety as 'the panic, helplessness, paralysis, and mental disorganisation that arises among some people when they are required to solve a mathematical problem.'  

This feeling of 'helplessness' isn't necessarily down to ability. Research has shown that over 77% of children with high maths anxiety are normal to high achievers on curriculum maths tests.

To understand how maths anxiety affects the brain, research using brain scanners found that it eats away at working memory (which is important for solving maths problems) by worrying about the maths rather than doing it.

What causes maths anxiety?

There are many reasons why students may experience maths anxiety. Here are some of the most common causes:

  • “Not getting it” - hearing the words, seeing the numbers and symbols, and not following the explanation
  • Feeling like everyone else gets it
  • Not wanting to show that they don’t understand for fear of embarrassment or ridicule
  • Not having a way to try to work it out by themselves
  • Trying to work it out themselves and not succeeding
  • Having no one to ask or discuss it with
  • Missing lessons due to absence, a music lesson, or (more recently) a pandemic

How maths anxiety affects students

Because maths builds on itself things can soon start to feel like they are out of control. Different students react to this in different ways - some will act out, others will quietly give up, and some will plod along picking up what they can where they can.

Add to this the new exam sat from 2017 which is based on a wider more detailed syllabus and is much harder - so much so that the average grade boundary for Higher level 5 is 29.25%. In other words, a higher student who gains a good pass will be unable to do 70% of the paper.

This naturally gives students a feeling of incompetence when they score these sorts of percentages (or lower) in practice papers.

How maths anxiety affects parents

Many parents will often say a variation of, “I was no good at maths” or “I never got maths at school” and so want to help their son or daughter to avoid a similar fate.

When we see our children having a similar experience to our own, it can be scary - particularly as maths and english qualifications are essential to further education and in the world of work. That's why it's natural to want to do everything possible to help.

How to help your child with maths anxiety

Anxiety is an emotion, so it's important to maintain a calm non-judgemental dialogue with your child, and keep your own emotions of frustration or fear or disappointment to yourself. 

It's okay to acknowledge the weaknesses of the system that your child is working with (such as the low grade boundaries described above). Discuss accepting it for what it is and working it to their best advantage. Take one day at a time and talk about other subjects they enjoy and are good at. 

Think of maths as necessary for now but not long term. Let your child know that when they're feeling better and feel like finding a way forward, you can discuss how to deal with this. The key thing is to let them know that they’re not alone, acknowledge their thoughts and feelings, and give them space.

Help your child go from 'how do I do this' to 'I can do this' with our Smarter Revision cards