Understanding Maths Anxiety

One of the most serious outcomes of Maths anxiety, is that it prevents some learners from engaging with Maths at almost any level, and this can have a profound effect later into adulthood. 

Maths anxiety is a state of discomfort which occurs in response to situations involving the solving of mathematical problems in a wide variety of ordinary life and academic situations.

Think about how some of these daily scenarios make you feel: Your bill arrives at a restaurant and you have to work out the tip, working out a sales discount at the shops, understanding the odds for a bet on a horse race; working out your pay rise when you are told it will be an increase of 5.25%, or changing the quantities of a recipe for four when cooking for six.

Do any of these scenarios provoke a sense of anxiety in you? Some people may feel highly anxious at the mere sight of a Maths problem, triggered by a symbol or a concept, creating a mental block anxiety. One of the most serious outcomes of Maths anxiety, is that it prevents some learners from engaging with Maths at almost any level, and this can have a profound effect later into adulthood. 

  1. Causes of Maths anxiety:

Maths anxiety can be the result of particular life experiences or teaching techniques.

  • Attitudes of parents, teachers or other people in the learning environment

Socio-cultural Maths anxiety is a consequence of common beliefs and myths about Maths, such as:

  • If you cannot learn facts, you will never be any good at maths;
  • If you cannot do mental calculations quickly, then you will never be a good Mathematician;
  • Or the most commonly heard one: “I do not have a Maths brain, therefore I cannot do Maths”
  • We also hear parents tell their children, ‘I was terrible at Maths at school’, sowing the impression that Maths is a hard, unattainable subject.

Dispelling these myths can assist in lessening the anxiety around Maths and allow leaners to flourish.

  • In some cases, people have had a stressful or embarrassing incident in their Maths history

Judy Hornigold speaks of a 75- year-old woman who enrolled in the college’s functional Maths course. She explained that at age 11 her teacher had told her she was too stupid to learn Maths. The woman remembered every detail about that day: the weather; what she wore; where she sat and what she could see from the window. She had spent her life believing that teacher, but she was determined not to die without proving her wrong.

  • Poor self-concept caused by history of failure

The more we fail at something the less we want to do it. Steve Chinn researched the age at which children are seen to give up on Maths. Shockingly, it’s as young as 6 years old. ‘Evidence suggests that maths anxiety results more from the way the subject is presented than from the subject itself.’ 

  • Anxiety can also be a result of poor instruction leading to a lack of understanding and knowledge of Maths and thus a lack of confidence.


  • And lastly, the extreme judgmental nature of maths where answers are perceived as either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’….

What do students think?

Some years ago, Steve Chinn asked a group of students age 11 to 18 what hindered them in class and provoked unnecessary anxiety. Their comments were as follows:

  • “Teachers who go too fast and expect too much.
  • Being expected to produce the same amount of work (as non-Dyscalculic pupils or those proficient in maths) in a given time.
  • Teachers who are patronising.
  • Too much copying off the board and/or having to dictate notes. Rubbing work off the board too quickly.
  • Having test results read out loud.
  • Being reprimanded when asking a friend for help.
  • Lack of understanding and empathy from teachers and other students.
  • Being made to answer maths questions aloud in class and not given enough time to think about the answers.
  • Having to work at speed and where activities are timed.
  • Having to work out calculations mentally.
  • Competition with other children.
  • Displaying tables of children’s results.
  • And not being allowed to work in groups.”


  1. How to Identify Maths Anxiety:

When we are anxious, our bodies produce adrenaline to aid our fight or flight response. But if you think about a classroom situation, a child will find it difficult to do either the fight or flight responses, and our bodies then produce even more adrenaline, leading to a paralysing anxiety.

The physical symptoms you often see with maths anxiety are:

  • ‘Butterflies’ in the stomach
  • Sweaty hands
  • Increased or irregular heartbeat
  • Tension in muscles
  • Clenched fists
  • Breathing quickly
  • Headaches

Psychological symptoms

  • Negative self-talk
  • Panic or fear
  • Being overly worried or apprehensive
  • Feelings of helplessness

In the classroom, this can manifest in behaviours such as task or school refusal, avoidance, distractibility or tearfulness. You may also see acting out and aggression. Working memory is vital to Maths, especially mental arithmetic. Anxiety influences your working memory, and research shows degraded performance either in speed or accuracy. Maths anxiety can also appear that the child has no understanding of the concept so when assessing for dyscalculia and severe Maths difficulties, one must always first consider the presentation of severe Maths anxiety.

  1. How to overcome Maths Anxiety

It is important to be able to identify Maths anxiety and to help learners overcome it by creating a teaching and home environment in which they feel secure and supported. This can be done by encouraging verbalisation of ideas and processes. Give work that is appropriately challenging and give credit for persistence and resilience. Use appropriate concrete manipulatives in a way that develops understanding. Don’t move too quickly from concrete materials to abstract concepts and revisit concepts regularly. It is also important to encourage collaboration with all key role players in the child’s life.

When Steve Chinn asked those students what helped them to overcome their anxiety, the children reported:

  • “Help being given discretely and quietly.
  • Being given more time.
  • Tasked with fewer examples for homework.
  • Handouts with summaries of work and including visuals to aid understanding.
  • Marking work in dark colours, tidily and discretely; with appropriate praise.
  • Being allowed to work in smaller groups.
  • Having well-trained teachers who care and show empathy.
  • Getting grades which show individual improvement.
  • Catch up exercises targeted at specific and individual problems.”

For me as an educator and psychologist, probably the most important way to lessen anxiety is to encourage a growth mindset and a sanctuary where mistakes are considered as vital to developing understanding. Research by Jo Boaler and Carol Dweck at Stanford University has shown that while synapses grow in the brain when a mistake is made, there is no growth when the answer is correct. It is the struggle to get the right answer that fosters growth, even if the mistake is not rectified. In terms of mathematical development, mistakes are valuable. Ultimately, classrooms need a risk-taking ethos, where children feel proud of their struggle, knowing that by making mistakes, their brains are growing. This mindset moves away from always focusing on the answer to focusing on the thought processes and the underlying understanding.

For more information, visit


Chinn, Steve. (2020). The Trouble with Maths (4th ed.) Taylor & Francis Ltd. London, United Kingdom.

Chinn, Steve. (2019). Myth buster: The biggest misconceptions about dyscalculia.

Hornigold, Judy. (2015). Dyscalculia Pocketbook (1st ed.). Pocketbooks. Alresford, United Kingdom

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