Elementary Schoolers' Interviews Show the Crippling Effects of Math Anxiety

"Everybody was staring at me, and I didn’t know the answer." 

For anyone who has ever fled in the face of calculating the tip, it’s no surprise that math can be stressful. But what may come as a surprise is that math-caused anxiety isn’t always something we’re born with. A new report suggests some kids learn to fear math, which reshapes how they approach it in school. It even impacts which career paths they choose later on.

In the report, psychologists at the University of Cambridge conducted a thorough investigation that yielded a crucial fact about kids with math anxiety: Most of them aren’t actually bad at math, at least not in the beginning. Eighty percent of kids who reported the highest levels of math anxiety turned out to be either normal or high math achievers when they were tested for the study.

Corresponding author Dénes Szücs, Ph.D., the deputy director of University of Cambridge’s Center for Neuroscience in Education, tells Inverse that the experience of math anxiety is so stressful that it stops some students from embracing math, which can make them perform worse over time.

“We have shown that high math anxiety does not necessarily mean very low levels of math performance and, in fact, most highly math anxious kids are normal to high achievers,” Szücs says. “However, math anxiety likely suppresses performance on the long run. In the long run, children will perform worse than what their original math ability would allow, and it may also keep these perfectly ‘math-able’ children away from STEM fields.”

How Anxiety Pushes Kids Away From Math

For the report, which was funded by the Nuffield Foundation, a group that funds education and social policy research, Szücs’s team tested math skills and analyzed anxiety levels in 1,700 kids in the UK. Then, they conducted interviews with them to try to establish how math anxiety can contribute to their learning process, and at what age the anxiety starts to emerge.

anxiety math
Math anxiety can make kids perform worse when they actually understand the material just fine. 

During the interviews, the authors noticed that specific anxious feelings about math tend to emerge when kids transition from elementary school to middle school. They note that it’s possible there’s a variety of factors that might lead kids to develop anxiety at this stage. There’s more homework, more tests, and more pressure to perform. For kids who tend to ruminate, feel generally anxious, or panic under pressure, a stressful experience in a math class can tip them over the edge. In the paper, one 9-year-old boy describes such an instance:

Once, I think it was the first day and he picked on me, and I just kind of burst into tears because everybody was staring at me and I didn’t know the answer. Well I probably knew it but I hadn’t thought it through.

Creating associations between general anxiety and math at that stage, Szücs says, is crucial. Eventually, it leads kids to make emotional decisions about whether or not to pursue the subject in the future. That’s where the vicious cycle begins.

“The real danger is that math anxiety may keep these children away from math-heavy subjects,” he explains. “They may opt out from more math learning not because they are unable to understand math but because they feel more anxious about it than about other subjects, so they make an emotional decision.”

In short, this report highlights the fact that poor performance in math class may not mean that the kids don’t understand the material; it’s that they’re just a bit freaked out. It’s like choking on the free throw line — you’re not a bad basketball player, you’ve just got a case of the yips.

How Can We Combat Math Anxiety?

Based on the interviews, Szücs recommends that teachers try to be consistent about the way they explain material to help avoid confusion — and anxiety that can arise from it. But he adds that parents and teachers can play a key role in keeping kids calm about math.

Child at school.
Kids who are predisposed to anxiety may develop math anxiety as well, which can lead them to think they're bad at it. 

A teacher or parent who continuously calls math hard can really rub off over time, planting the idea in a kid’s mind that math really is hard — maybe even too hard.

“The most important thing is for parents and teachers to be conscious of the fact that their own stereotypes and attitudes about math can extremely easily ‘transfer’ to their children or to the children they teach,” he explains.

Classroom learning isn’t just about teaching a student information; it’s about creating emotional context that can shape how that student views that information in the future. That way they can at least give everyone a fair chance to love math, or, at least, not hate it.