How to master anxiety about maths

  • RonelKlatzkin
X + 2y = 3z. This is the stuff of which nightmares are made. Even 20 years after leaving school, we can still wake up in a sweat from a maths-related dream. Maths anxiety (MA) is a debilitating but learned behaviour. As South African youth commence the new academic year, it’s pertinent for teachers and parents to be at the forefront of addressing this problem that begins at school.
by RONEL KLATZKIN | Jan 16, 2020

“Pumpkin” was the name my Grade 2 maths teacher gave me. She probably thought it was cute, but for me, it never failed to invoke feelings of shame that I was the last person in the class to work out the maths sum we had been given in the game we were playing.

Says Wanda Yanuarto from the department of math education at the University of Muhammadiyah Purwokerto in Indonesia, “Research confirms that pressure of timed tests and risks of public embarrassment have long been recognised as sources of unproductive tension among many students. The three traditional maths classroom practices that cause great anxiety in many students are imposed authority, public exposure, and time deadlines.” Clearly my teacher had never met Yanuarto.

Researchers from the Centre for Neuroscience in Education (CNE) in the United Kingdom describe MA as a negative emotional reaction to maths, which includes tension and anxiety that interfere with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in ordinary life and academic situations. It’s not something that people are born with, like dyscalculia, but rather a thought process that leads to stress and avoidance. The researchers suggest that between 2%-6% of students experience extreme MA at secondary school level in the UK.

Gita Lipschitz, school counsellor at King David Victory Park High School in Johannesburg, explains that “the part of the brain that is responsible for logic, problem-solving, and decision-making [the temporal lobe] is unable to function if the emotional brain is overwhelmed”. This emotional brain refers to the “limbic system”, interconnected brain structures responsible for much of our emotional experience. This explains why I couldn’t work out the answers in the “Pumpkin” game quickly enough, as my brain was experiencing the emotion of humiliation, which then shut down my logical side.

As I grew older, I struggled to stay calm during timed tests. I would forget how to do the sums for which I had practised, or I would rush through the paper, submitting implausible answers just to finish. Yanuarto believes that MA reduces cognitive reflection – students will generate and accept responses quickly, without taking the time to check or correct, as I did. The CNE suggests that there is a relationship between MA and performance in maths tests, which has been summarised into three models. The Deficit Theory maintains that poor maths performance leads to an increase in MA. This would imply that if little Johnny, for example, received 20% for a test, his anxiety would increase during his next test. The Debilitating Anxiety Model explains that the relationship works in reverse, i.e. little Johnny arrives at the maths test already feeling anxious about the test, and this then affects his performance. The Reciprocal Theory suggests that the relationship between MA and maths performance operates in both directions: increased MA results in decreased maths performance, and vice versa. Poor little Johnny is caught in a vicious cycle.

It’s situations like these that require especially empathetic and caring teachers. Hayley Kobrin, a maths and maths literacy teacher, says that she spends the first six months of the year boosting her students’ confidence, going slowly, and keeping assessments basic so that they can internalise that they can cope with the work. “Students arrive in my classroom hating maths because they’ve usually been told by a teacher or parent that they can’t do it. They are totally paralysed by the subject,” she says.

But what created this anxiety in the first place? Kobrin suggests that sometimes concepts are taught at the wrong time – too early perhaps – because age and maturity have an effect on understanding. She also maintains that parents “almost give their children permission”, by telling their children that they couldn’t do the work when they were young. The child then internalises that he or she doesn’t have to do the work – if the parent gave up, why should the child continue?

The teacher’s attitude is also important. Kobrin clarifies that “sometimes switching over to new methodology, say if the school decides to adopt a new curriculum, can cause anxiety in teachers. Sometimes the teachers will even leave out the difficult sums because they are not equipped to deal with them”. This happened to the child of a close friend of Kobrin, who came to Kobrin for assistance with a particular sum. However, when the child’s teacher was going over the homework the next day and got to that sum, she told the class “let’s leave that one out”. This attitude leaves the child without the tools and grit to tackle a difficult sum.

In order for MA to be prevented, or at least managed, children must be encouraged, even when they make mistakes. Yanuarto believes that “incorrect responses must be handled in a positive way to encourage participation and enhance confidence”. She also believes students learn best when they are actively engaged in a task instead of passively watching the teacher. Therefore, teachers should employ different ways to teach new concepts, such as play acting, group work, visual aids, hands-on activities and technology (and hopefully no games such as “Pumpkin”!).

Yanuarto says parents should show their children that maths can be used in fun and practical ways, such as in cooking, sports, or games such as Sudoko or cards. A positive attitude towards maths will not only benefit the child while he or she is at school, but as an adult. Unfortunately, many adults avoid maths-related situations, for example, paying taxes or understanding retirement savings, because of MA. People also avoid careers in which they would need to use maths. I, for example, made a conscious decision to choose a Bachelor of Arts over a Bachelor of Science so that I could avoid first-year maths.

In South Africa, where there is a need for maths and science-related careers, it’s imperative that teachers and parents work as a team so that their children will feel less like pumpkins and more like Princess Cinderella and Prince Charming – in love with maths and living happily ever after.

  • Ronel Klatzkin is a high school English teacher at King David Victory Park, where she runs two successful extra-mural groups, Writing Club, and Slam Poetry.

1 Comment

  1. 1 Shirley Snoyman 19 Jan
    Hi Ronel,

    What an outstanding article. I am a Maths teacher in Sydney and cannot agree more that Maths Anxiety activates activity in our ancient brains whereas we require activity to be in the mid pre frontal cortex. I teach my students meditation techniques to physically move this activity to this region. I have had really positive results in particular a student who left his final HSC exam from anxiety, did the 3 minute breathing exercise I had taught him and went back to complete his exam. He texted me last month that he got a band 6, the highest band achievable in the HSC. I would love to chat to you about train the trainer approach of these techniques. I do travel to South Africa from time to time so if this is of interest, please reach out so we can set up a date and time to meet. Warm regards Shirley 


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