10 top tips to help overcome maths anxiety in your child!

These are some of the most common signs that your child may have maths anxiety:
  1. obviously upset
  2. nervous habits like rubbing eyes or fidgeting
  3. tantrums
  4. tears
  5. avoidance tactics like wanting the toilet or a drink or having broken pencil or not the right equipment …
  6. poor behaviour
  7. anger
  8. frustration
  9. under-attainment
  10. poor working memory
  11. lack of confidence
  12. passive behaviour (not joining in just letting it all pass them by)
  13. not wanting to do homework
  14. helplessness

If any of these things ring a bell with you about your child, the chances are that they have some level of maths anxiety.

So, if those are the signs and symptoms you probably want to know how to reduce maths anxiety…

These steps can be used at home:

  • Make it fun, laugh and even fake a laugh to reduce anxiety. If you can manage to bring in fun activities that is one of the sure-fire ways to bring down anxiety really quickly. Try to play specific maths type games, but also the more you play card games, board games, anything involving dice or counting the better as this will increase confidence. The ‘fake it till you make it’ idea works in this situation too. Surprisingly, the brain cannot tell if laughter is put on or genuine and it will cheer up even in response to faked laughter. So, adopt a laughy jokey persona with your child and the fun will rub off on them!
  • Keep a positive attitude. Try to come over that you are confident, not only in your child’s ability to learn maths but also in your ability to help them. It is important that everyone that they interact with has an enthusiastic mentality and is staying positive about maths as this will help to motivate rather than demotivate them to keep on trying. Try and replace any negative thoughts and comments with positive ones. Sadly, a parent’s or an inexperienced teacher’s attitude towards maths tends to have a big impact on the child too. ‘This is really hard’ ‘I’m rubbish at maths too’ ‘I was always bad at maths.’ Parents often say these things, but also make a joke out of it too. This sends confusing messages that it is somehow ok for you not to want to bother to succeed and that being able to do maths doesn’t matter. This isn’t to say that you aren’t truthful that you found it hard too, but think carefully about the way you might make flippant comments that can go on to then demotivate them. Reframe your difficulty by saying ‘I found this hard when I was your age too, but I did eventually start to find it easier and you will too…’, ‘Don’t believe you can’t be good at maths – anyone can get better.’
  • Remember to breathe! If they begin to feel overwhelmed, take a timeout to regain control. Try the 4-step breathing technique. Breathe in 1, 2, 3, 4, hold breath 1, 2, 3, 4, breathe out 1, 2, 3, 4 then hold breath 1, 2, 3, 4. Do that for a few cycles and it will help the brain overcome the anxiety rush. If at the start they can’t count to 4 try 1, 2, 3 until the breathing starts to come under control then add in the extra count to 4 each time.
  • It is also important to have realistic expectations yourself about how much improvement your child will make and of how well they will do overall. Keep any targets as SMART targets. Specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely. So, for example ‘over the next week, we are going to learn to match 7 out of 10 questions about number bonds correctly.’ With this SMART target, the task is achievable and realistic and not broad like ‘you are going to get better at maths.’ There is every chance that because your child can understand that they will be able to do this small step that they will be motivated to give it a go. Within the week they will then manage 6 or 7 or even more correct answers and their confidence will begin to grow. With increased confidence comes decreased maths anxiety. As the anxiety comes down the brain is able to use more of its power to run their working memory and processing speed. (See my video about the link between maths anxiety, working memory and processing speed and why it has such a profound impact on maths learning https://youtu.be/Orl7LySkw34)
  • Back to basics – this is one of the fundamental ideas that can reduce maths anxiety. There is a very big chance that your child has some pretty big gaping holes in their basic maths knowledge, skills and understanding. Therefore, going back to the basics and strengthening their core skills is always a good idea. Help to rebuild from the ground upwards, but this time in the correct order and without any gaps or misconceptions. (Watch my video that explains this https://youtu.be/U8zpnRZplN4) Try to focus on teaching them tasks and concepts that are at their level not necessarily from their age group syllabus. Without the foundations below them, the harder concepts will not stick and that in itself causes anxiety. By playing games or doing activities and rather than struggling they will find that they succeed and start to thrive, they will begin to believe that maths isn’t the scary and awful thing, that they had come to believe.
  • Understanding not memorisation – This is also quite an important one for children with maths anxiety. It is far more important to help them learn from the ground up and focus on the ‘why?’ rather than focusing on the memorisation of facts or methods. They will probably find it really hard to remember number facts like times tables and formal written methods for addition or subtraction. But if they can begin to understand ‘why we borrow one from that column’ or ‘seven times something is the same as 5 times it plus 2 times it’ they are more likely to be able to then remember the method as the brain has anchors to connect the memory to. Using objects and pictures helps this work even better. Aim to ‘gain mastery’ which is mastering something before moving on to the next task. This often isn’t possible in a classroom setting as the needs of the many are prioritised over the need of one child but together at home, you can move at the pace that they need.
  • Develop a Growth Mindset – This means that they begin to move out of the Comfort or Anxiety Zones and into the Growth Zone where new learning happens – so here, it should be safe to make mistakes, get stuck, require support, and find activities challenging and tiring. At the moment, your child probably doesn’t have the resilience to be in that challenging zone and will become agitated if pushed back into it too quickly. (see my blog post about this https://jmbtutoring.co.uk/news/f/how-can-we-overcome-the-maths-anxiety ) Every time that they can feel less anxious and take that step into the unknown they will get better at coping with a challenge. As this happens more frequently, they will grow in confidence that they have managed something new. This will help lower anxiety in a good upward spiral.
  • It’s ok to be stuck – encourage them that is it ok to be stuck and that there are ways of getting unstuck. Don’t believe that ‘others who are good at maths don’t make mistakes’ they do; we all do and that is just fine! Explain to them about the 3 zones and then this scenario. If someone who is better at than them at the moment in one area tries to the same task as they do – for that other child, they are in their Comfort Zone whereas your child is in either their Growth or Anxiety Zones. That is why the other child comes over as confident and that they don’t make mistakes. They would do just the same as your child if they were being pushed into those tricky zones themselves. With time and as general maths anxiety levels start to come down and they spend more time in the Growth Zone rather than the Anxiety Zone they need to start to develop strategies that they need to use when they do get stuck. At the moment they probably just go deep into anxiety symptoms and withdraw from the task with an ‘I can’t do it, it’s too hard!’ type of comment. Other typical responses are to just ask for help straight out without even trying to do it themselves. This can be called learned helplessness. It is a natural response to just step in and help your child as soon as they ask or seem to be struggling, but long term this makes maths anxiety worse. Therefore, it is useful to try and give them some suggestions on what do when they don’t understand. If we can turn it around so that you start to become the facilitator rather than a rescuer that is a good way forward. This can be all about asking good questions when they do ask for help so that they end up solving their own problem just by you nudging them in the right direction with your questioning. Ask them to try and be specific about what bit of the task they don’t understand. Can they order their thoughts by saying out loud or in their head so that you can understand where their issue is? What do you know? Is this like anything else that you have done before? How is it different from that question? So, what do you need to do the same and what in a different way? Could you do it with easier numbers? This one is particularly useful. Try swapping tricky numbers that for example need harder times tables knowledge for nicer, easier numbers. Ask them if they can now do the question, there is a big chance they will now be able to do it. That will increase their confidence. Add back in the original numbers and have another go, this time using a 12×12 times table prompt grid to scaffold the task. Encourage them to ask questions and talk about the concept.
  • Extra time for thinking – Don’t believe you have to do maths quickly to be good at it. That isn’t the case but they may think it is. Timed tests are a direct cause of maths anxiety. Give your child thinking time after every question. Try not to step in and answer for them before they have had a chance to think and then respond. Ask their school if it possible for them to have extra time in any timed tests. Also, ask that sometimes tests can be untimed as this will reduce the anxiety and they are likely to perform better and be able to show what they can do rather than freezing. Ask for accommodations – which means things like asking to be allowed to use a 12×12 TT grid for tasks where they are learning the method, not doing TT practice.
  • Integrate maths into life and not as a separate thing – try and practice maths skills during their day. Encourage them to count things, group things and measure things. This can be in the supermarket or when cooking and baking. Just try and make it a completely normal thing to do and not a ‘big maths deal’

I wish you luck in helping your child and that this guide to tackling maths anxiety will help you.

Judy Brice
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