Maths Anxiety is defined by the Maths Anxiety Trust as a negative emotional reaction to mathematics, leading to varying degrees of helplessness, panic and mental disorganisation that arises among some people when faced with a mathematical problem.

As you can imagine, this doesn’t allow students to perform at their best in maths papers or in lessons. Students with maths anxiety often relate this difficulty to deliver in maths papers to a general failure on their part and tend to move away from maths as a whole.

For students experience maths anxiety, it can present as negative self-talk (I can’t do this, I’m stupid) and cognitive overload (brain fog) when presented with a mathematical challenge. They may also experience physical symptoms of anxiety (tension, headaches, dizziness, stomach cramps, sweating). Generally the whole experience is very unpleasant, and so understandably leads to avoidant behaviours. These may be described as disruptive in a classroom environment (back talking to the teacher, comedy interruptions, storming out, repeated absence, truancy, temper tantrums, shutting down, copying, talking when asked to listen).

Maths anxiety

Initial assessments

When a student with anxiety reaches out for support, those students are often quite anxious about their initial session. That can present in a number of ways as described above. In those situations, it is far better to avoid anything that looks or feels like an exam. This already has negative connotations for the student. The physiological response they would experience in this scenario is similar to my having inflicted physical pain on them. We are trying to build trust and confidence rather than torturing them. Instead I opt for a verbal assessment, and we discuss the content they remember covering in class.

I always start out by getting to know my student. If they’re anxious around maths, we won’t talk about that (at least not obviously) at all at the beginning. Ask them what they enjoy, ask them how school went this week. Ask them what they would like to do in the next stage of their learning, or anything else that means them talking about themselves and the things that make them happy. Whatever they say, find a genuine way to be enthusiastic about it and relate to them. Do be genuine, as they’ll spot fakery and it’ll damage trust. By talking about things they enjoy, you’re already putting them into a good mood and building a connection with them.

Building connections for students with maths anxiety

Identifying the source of anxiety

Asking the student about their memory of maths lessons (in the context of identifying a topic) can lead them into a discussion of their emotional experience too if they’re feeling comfortable to share. I encourage this, and it allows me to normalise the experience for them. This will hopefully remove some of the isolation and judgement they may be feeling. Acknowledge what they’re feeling, and share that many students feel maths anxiety. It is not their fault, but it is something that can be overcome. I don’t make any false promises though – nothing happens without hard work on their part. I have my own experiences with anxiety, so I can relate to their experiences here.

It may also lead us to identify the source of their anxiety, if they’ve had a particularly bad experience. Often there is no single event, but a boiling pot of anxiety that has built up over time. The aim is to enable them to understand their emotional, physical, and mental experiences separately. I want to separate their anxiety from their comprehension. Without the requirement for delivering in this initial session (an informal chat) the hope is to identify their ‘wins’ and start to show them there is a more positive path for their future learning.

Building confidence for students with maths anxiety

Building confidence for exams

Exams are often an anxiety trigger for these students. This is why we don’t start with a test, but they are an unfortunately staple part of the learning experience. Over time, we work to build confidence so that the exams are less daunting by the time they come around.

Can you remember a time that you had to do something that terrified you, and you overcame it and did it anyway? The chances are that it took up a lot of your mental energy in the process. And I’ll bet that after having done it you had a moment of elation. Sharing that with your student will help them to relate to you. It will also show them what they can achieve if they are willing to invest the mental energy up front.

The eternal confidence Catch-22 is that confidence comes from taking action. We very often wait to feel confident enough to do something before we start. We are left in a constant state of inaction which only confirms the ‘I can’t do this’ idea. We need to take one or two steps out of the ‘comfort zone’ to the ‘growth zone’.

The growth zone for students with maths anxiety

Where is the growth zone?

The important thing to remember here is that going too far out of our comfort zone (boredom, no challenge, distraction) leads us into overwhelm (avoidance, panic, refusal). This is where those anxiety symptoms of brain fog and physical discomfort return. This is where our negative self-talk gathers more evidence for itself. It is so important to be supported in these steps so that students remain in the growth zone (asking questions, self-doubt, visible progress over time). They should be repeatedly shown evidence of their success.

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Georgina Green - Supporting students with maths anxiety