Rage, despair, breathlessness – these are just some of the symptoms children with ‘maths anxiety’ may face. And according to a recent study conducted by the University of Cambridge, the number of students suffering is on the rise. What’s causing this increased panic around one of our core subjects, and what can we do to help children overcome?
Maths anxiety is characterised as the negative emotional reaction to mathematics, and it has been recognised in academic circles for some 50 years. Causing extreme distress, and often reducing sufferers to tears, maths anxiety can start a vicious cycle of behavioural problems and poor performance.
Cambridge University’s study looked at 1,700 pupils in the UK, aged 8 to 13, and 1,000 students of the same age in Italy. High numbers of British students felt that maths was harder than other subjects, and that pressure from parents, teachers and frequent testing was leading to a loss of confidence. With the resulting poor marks only fuelling the fire, the authors of the report warn this should be a ‘real concern’ for both primary and secondary schools.
Although the Department for Education is working with schools across the country to improve mathematics education, backed by £41 million of funding, one of the key challenges is the lack of specialist staff to teach the subject. As Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, explains: “Classes often have to be taught by non-specialists and supply staff. [They] often do a good job in difficult circumstances, but it is no substitute for the subject knowledge and continuity provided by subject specialists.”
So what can worried parents do to help their children – particularly when perceived pressure at home is contributing to their anxiety? The Maths Anxiety Trust has lots of helpful resources online, including details on how boys and girls may benefit from different kinds of support.
With the lack of specialist teachers in schools contributing to confusion around the subject, consider bringing a private tutor on board. The one-to-one help they offer can be an invaluable way to boost confidence and give children the focused support they need.
Finally, when working on the subject together, it’s important to be aware of your own anxieties. According to a survey last year, 20% of adults felt anxious when confronted with a mathematical problem, so it’s important to address your own fears and get support when you need it too.