As a team of teachers, there’s nothing we love more than seeing children enjoy learning, and there’s nothing that breaks our hearts quite like seeing them become frustrated and disengaged with education. But unfortunately, many children face feelings of worry, panic, anxiety and frustration when trying to tackle maths problems. And these negative feelings can impede on working memory and prevent children from thinking clearly and being able to understand and solve maths problems. This response to maths is known as maths anxiety.
You can spot maths anxiety by looking out for the signs and symptoms. You might notice that children look anxious or are struggling to think clearly, or maybe you hear them saying things like “I hate maths” or “I’ll never be good at maths”. Children who have not hit age-related expectations and children who avoid maths at all costs could also have maths anxiety. If a child hasn’t completed their maths homework, for example, it might be because they feel too anxious to tackle it alone.
The signs and symptoms can vary from child to child, but however this issue presents itself, maths anxiety is a real problem that ails many primary-age pupils, and it’s also one that parents and teachers can help children overcome.
We’ve put together some evidence-based tips that can help children conquer maths anxiety and even develop a love of learning maths.
Understand the Causes of Maths Anxiety
Before you can start helping children overcome maths anxiety, you need to know what causes it so you can get to the root of the problem.
Jo Boaler, an author and professor of mathematics at Stanford University, has named and shamed timed tests as a cause of maths anxiety. Boaler argues that giving children timed tests at a young age, in some instances from the age of 5, instils fear and anxiety and “is one of the clearest ways schools damage children.”
Children may also develop maths anxiety if they fear getting maths problems wrong. They might feel embarrassed about making mistakes or worried that their teachers or parents will be disappointed or angry. In some cases, combating maths anxiety may be a case of helping children overcome a fear of failure.
Maths anxiety can also stem from children hearing adults negatively discussing maths. Lots of adults remember struggling with maths at school and will talk openly about how they didn’t like maths or didn’t see the point in it, but children’s minds are like sponges, and hearing adults talk this way can affect how they see the subject. Hearing parents claim that they’re bad at maths can also cause children to feel as though an inability to think mathematically runs in the family.
So even if maths was your biggest enemy in your school days, try to use empowering and encouraging language around children. Maths lessons have likely come a long way since you were at school, and there’s no reason why all children can’t achieve maths mastery.
Adopt Mixed-Ability Grouping in Classrooms
While ability grouping has been common practice for many years, grouping children of similar abilities can disadvantage children in “low-ability” groups and contribute to maths anxiety. Children in these groups are likely to suffer from confidence issues. Having been put into the “bottom” group, they may develop a fixed mindset and feel like they are inherently “bad at maths” and unable to succeed in this subject.
One thing teachers can do to prevent maths anxiety is to use mixed-ability grouping in the classroom. This can protect children from the negative effects of ability grouping. Children who learn in a mixed-ability environment may develop a healthier, growth mindset and a more positive attitude towards learning.
Children of different abilities, with different strengths, weaknesses and learning styles, can also help each other overcome obstacles and see new ways of tackling number problems. Learners who are struggling to grasp a concept can ask their peers for help and benefit from the understanding of children considered “higher ability”. Higher-ability children too can benefit from mixed-ability maths lessons — through helping their classmates, they will consolidate their own knowledge and think about alternative problem-solving strategies that they might otherwise not have considered.
With children working together and progressing through lessons at the same rate, they’re less likely to feel anxious or overwhelmed by lessons. Mixed-ability grouping can also encourage children to believe in themselves and adopt a growth mindset during maths lessons, which in turn can make them feel less anxious and more confident.
Make Maths Fun for Children
Children with maths anxiety don’t enjoy learning about maths. They are usually convinced that maths simply isn’t fun and instead associate this subject with negative feelings. So one of the best ways to help children wave goodbye to maths anxiety is to prove that maths can be enjoyable.
Once you get children smiling and laughing while learning, they’ll feel less anxious and more engaged during lessons, and they’re more likely to be open and receptive to new information.
And the good news is, there are plenty of ways to make maths enjoyable for children. It’s a good idea to try out different methods of teaching and learning resources during lessons or home learning sessions. Different children have different learning styles, so exploring a wide variety of approaches and materials can help children find a way of learning that gets them excited about maths.
Using enjoyable resources with visual and creative elements can help children engage with maths activities. For example, on Master the Curriculum, you’ll find resources that are specifically designed with fun in mind. From superhero maths worksheets to interactive maths videos and Roman-themed dot-to-dot activities, we have thousands of primary maths resources for Years 1-6 that are fun, creative and designed to entice all learners.
Children can learn to love maths with interactive maths activities in the form of worksheets, videos and even video games. And if children want to get creative, and maybe burn off some energy in the process, you can always try out active maths activities (or create your own) using flashcards, shapes or just your imagination!
Use Positive Reinforcement
In 2015, a study on the effects of positive and negative reinforcement on sixth graders’ mental maths performance showed that children who received positive reinforcement performed best, and with the lowest heart rate (a racing heart rate is a typical sign of maths anxiety). With this in mind, positive reinforcement could be the perfect solution to help children feel calm and think clearly when facing maths problems.
Offering praise, rewards and even just a few words of encouragement can motivate children to do their best without feeling stressed. Instead of feelings of anxiety, children might feel excited about potential rewards and motivated to complete and succeed at maths activities.
Teach Understanding Over Memorisation
Memorisation has its place in maths lessons, but prioritising understanding can help children develop lasting knowledge and problem-solving skills. Children can develop maths anxiety and become frustrated with lessons if they don’t understand how to solve maths problems.
Making sure children fully grasp concepts and understand how to apply their maths knowledge to different problems and scenarios can help them feel more confident and able to tackle more advanced concepts. Using the maths mastery approach to ensure children have a complete understanding of maths lessons before moving onto more complex lessons can help children progress through the maths curriculum without feeling anxious, stressed or like they “can’t do maths”.
Whether you’re a teacher or a parent, Master the Curriculum is here to help you make sure your children reach their full academic potential and do so with a smile. We’ve created thousands of primary maths resources to help children develop a love of learning early on and ultimately become masters of maths. Many of our resources are available completely free of charge — you just need to sign up for a free account and start downloading, printing or viewing our resources online!