Maths anxiety – How parents can help 

I’m terrible at Maths. I can’t do Algebra. I was always bad at Maths tests.

Maths anxiety starts early and many teachers report hearing first years at primary school declaring they are no good at Maths. Sadly this doesn’t end with IB Maths at the end of your child’s school career, Maths anxiety can follow students throughout life.  With young children already forming this self-image of Maths failure, what can we do as parents to keep our child improving and working hard? 

The quick answer is we can do a lot, and there is no need to be a certified IB Maths teacher to make a difference.  With Maths making up well over half of all tuition requests, we are used to supporting students and advising parents on what they can do to help.  Here are our top tips to help:

1) Be positive about Maths at home. If you have Maths anxiety try not to let on and share it with your child.

2) Teach your children a growth mindset (more on that below).

3) Help your children see everyday Maths in the world around them while showing how it is useful to us in our daily personal and professional lives.

4) Act fast. If your child declares they hate Maths, work on a solution quickly before motivation starts to disappear.

5) If you are still not able to solve Maths anxiety yourself ask the school, or your child’s teacher for help.

6) Call in the professionals for a little extra help. A Maths tutor can avoid family struggles around Maths homework, build confidence, and reinforce what the student is learning at school to create a positive cycle of achievement and self-belief.

Resilience is key.  It is a word we hear time and time again in the newspapers, from management gurus and parenting experts.   As Mum or Dad we can often wonder how we achieve this holy grail of child development. We aren’t all Maths experts. So how do we avoid pulling our hair out when our children are struggling with Maths lessons or starting to show signs of hating the subject? 

What causes Maths anxiety?

As a parent of two children who have both declared at one point or another a hatred of Maths, I was inspired by a Maths specialist (Judy Hornigold) at an education conference at the International School of Geneva.  Her comments on Maths teaching reminds me why we don’t have to look far to understand why children learn to hate it early on. What causes Maths related stress for children? Timed activities – check. Searching for THE right answer – check. Competition against other students – check.  My son’s online Maths homework had timed exercises that stressed him so much he would dive under the table to avoid doing it. If he got just one wrong there would be no gold bar for him and it would result in half an hour of tears. We all have experiences of what causes our children stress and anxiety around Maths, and at TutorsPlus we see the results of this pressure time and time again.  Students learn to hate Maths. The erosion in confidence creeps into other academic subjects too. In some extreme cases, struggles over Maths homework can start to break down family relationships and harmony.

Academics have shown that problems with Maths are complicated which can make them hard to solve for parents.  There is evidence that issues can be the result of not only cognitive abilities but also general predisposition to anxiety and emotional problems.  However, there is good news, researchers have shown that children as young as 9 are already experts in their own experience and can be enrolled to help find their solutions with the support of parents and teachers.

So what are the solutions?

The first thing we can do is act fast.  It is common for mild grumbling about a test to lead to disengagement in class and soon after that to a child giving up on Maths.  At that stage, it takes more time to build back confidence and this is why early intervention is key. Talk to the school. Start with the class teacher, Maths teacher or form tutor and explain your concerns. They will likely have noticed similar patterns at school and be able to help.  These discussions can be kept positive and look to work alongside the school to find solutions. Help may include extra support at school, different classwork or class accommodations, a plan to help with homework, new rewards and recognition for work well done, outside assistance from a Maths tutor, or special needs testing, among many other potential interventions. 

We can help at home

It will come as no surprise that one of the most powerful interventions we can make is to choose to avoid passing on any Maths anxiety we may have to our children.  There is now significant evidence that a fear of Maths can be passed on through the family, so be positive about the subject at home, focus on the process of Maths rather than just the result and have the confidence to play around with numbers and calculations, even discover the magic of Maths together with your children.  Avoid sharing any fear of Maths, just as we would try to hide our fear of other things, so our children don’t inherit those phobias from us.

Create a growth mindset

If you haven’t already heard of the concept it was created by Carol Dweck and popularised in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success.  While we could write a whole blog post this subject alone, it is all about the distinction between “fixed” and “growth” mindsets. According to Dweck, “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.”  In this way of thinking children believe they are either “smart” or “dumb” and that this is unchangeable. Instead, if we can teach our children that our brain grows more when we fail than when we succeed easily we can grow resilience in our children. We can teach them that with a growth mindset we can tackle problems and learn effectively in Maths, moving away from pass/fail thinking and towards a place where the process is what matters most and that skill development is more important than the final result.  This is not to say that test results are unimportant, but if we are to get the best out of our children we need to give them time to grow and learn without pressure and stress so they can succeed.

For further advice or to find an experienced Maths tutor who can help.

By Sara Lloyd

Sara has been an education consultant for TutorsPlus for over 10 years and is an expert on international education in Switzerland.  She is also a parent to two lively children.