What a fear of maths does to children – new research


Maths anxiety is the feeling of tension and fear that many people experience when called on to work out a sum. For children, it can lead to behavioural problems in class, as well as physical symptoms such as butterflies in the stomach and a racing heart.

Students with high maths anxiety perform worse in standardised maths tests and school exams. Anxious thoughts interfere with recalling maths-related facts and procedures, and also with performing these procedures well. This is often described as the experience of having your mind go blank.

Our new research shows that maths anxiety does not only affect how children do in exams, it also affects their ability to learn new mathematical concepts and procedures in class.

Early beginnings

We introduced more than 200 six-year-old schoolchildren in the UK and Italy to mathematics that they had not covered in school before. This included additions with tens and using the lesser than and greater than signs.

The children’s knowledge of these mathematical procedures and concepts was measured before the teaching, immediately afterwards, and then one week later. We found that children who were more anxious about maths often started with a lower level of relevant knowledge. But more importantly, these children learned less from the training sessions. This was shown in their performance immediately after the training session and one week later.

In other words, our study shows that pupils who are anxious about maths not only struggle during exams, but they actually learn less maths at school than non-anxious pupils with the same educational opportunities.

Another important finding from our research concerned the age of the children. Our participants were just six years old. Other studies have found that children at such a young age already experience maths anxiety, but there has been debate as to whether this would affect young children’s maths performance in any way. Our studies clearly show that maths anxiety has an impact at this age.

If maths anxiety reduces learning from the very beginning of school, the implication is that maths anxiety can lead to cumulative gaps in knowledge over the school years. Not surprisingly, students who feel anxious about maths might finish school with lower maths grades and avoid career choices in maths-intensive fields.

Lifelong impact

But the implications of maths anxiety go far beyond school. People who feel anxious about maths might also experience difficulties in their everyday life, such as making worse decisions about their finances and health.

An example is when people feel uncomfortable in interpreting statistics and graphs relating to the effects of COVID-19, and yet need to make lifestyle choices based on this information.

Other forms of anxiety, as well as procrastination, avoidance of challenges, and low levels of self-confidence and self-esteem are also common among people with maths anxiety. Overall, mathematics anxiety can have a strong impact on people’s life success and satisfaction.

This calls for early assessment and intervention. Nevertheless, just as it is possible to improve mathematics performance in struggling students, it is also possible to overcome mathematics anxiety.

Parents and teachers can transmit negative attitudes and anxiety towards maths. Some intervention approaches focus on increasing parents’ confidence in their own ability to help their children in learning maths and providing them with ideas for fun maths games that can be played at home.

Computer programs and apps have also been recommended for practising maths. One advantage of this approach is that computers offer a motivating, attractive and nonjudgmental environment for practising some essential skills, and they can be used without the contribution of trained professionals.

Other research suggests that drawing students’ attention to previous instances where they successfully overcame challenges in their maths learning can boost self-confidence and lead to more positive attitudes and less anxiety. Indeed, high levels of maths anxiety are not always associated with low levels of performance. The problem is that people with high levels of anxiety fail to reach their full potential. Practising maths with a tutor can also reduce anxiety.

Although mathematics anxiety is linked to a host of negative consequences, there are many ways for people to deal with their anxiety and avoid these negative outcomes. Nevertheless, an even better option is to avoid the development of mathematics anxiety altogether. Our research suggests that efforts to develop positive attitudes towards mathematics should start in the first years of school, or even earlier.

Author Bios: Kinga Morsany is Senior Lecturer in Mathematical Cognition at Loughborough University, Carlo Tomasetto is Associate Professor in Developmental and Educational Psychology at the Università di Bologna, Paddy O’Connor is a Lecturer (Education) at Queen’s University Belfast and Veronica Guardabassi is a Researcher in Developmental and Educational Psychology at the Università di Bologna