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Maths Anxiety Is Real. What Can a Parent Do?

11/11/2015 09:43 GMT | Updated 10/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Maths is hard. Well, it is for most people. I used to have a distinct feeling of dread before every maths lesson. The kind that lay low in the belly and made you feel like you were constantly on the verge of vomiting.

During lessons, my maths teacher would despair as I would either panic silently and sit with a blank worksheet in front of me, or I would spend all of my time going around in circles trying to work out how to solve the problem, all the while getting more and more confused as the fear and negative thoughts distracted me from taking a breath and calmly working it out. At the time I put this down to me being a bit of a maths dunce, but maybe it was something else.

Did you know that you can actually see Maths anxiety? On the MRI scans of 7-9 year old brains.

American researchers from Stanford University hooked 7-9 year olds to scanners, and asked them to examine Maths problems (a cruel experiment, you might think, but we are assured that none of them suffered permanent harm, either from the Maths or that aggressive buzzing noise MRI scanners make). A low anxiety and a high anxiety group emerged. On the grey brain images of the high anxiety group, coloured smudges tell the story. Physiological activity associated with anxiety is higher. Activity signalling computation is lower. It seems there is a direct link between anxiety and an inability to think clearly.

These scientists say that the anxiety can impair the thought process. Others disagree. Severe difficulty with Maths is sometimes called dyscalculia - the numerical counterpart, if you will, to dyslexia's. Experts in this field say that the anxiety arises from frustrations and limitations in the thought processes. The phenomena are clearly linked, and we don't know exactly how.

Here, we're standing at the borderline between the apparently vague world of emotion and the hard facts of neurology and numbers. It's hard to pin down what is happening, but most people would agree that panic impairs clear thought, while confidence and tranquillity fosters it. All of us must have experienced that loss of clear thought that comes with panic.

Maths phobia?

So, you could think of Maths anxiety as a phobia in its extreme cases. Generally, people avoid situations that give rise to phobias. While this might not matter so much when it comes to spiders or heights, avoiding Maths is generally not a good life choice. In any event, for a teenager, avoidance is becoming rather more difficult. It's not just that you have to pass GCSE. Chances are, if you go on to sit A-levels in arts subjects, you'll be obliged to take the new Core Maths qualification at the same time. Sixteen is no longer the age at which you can wave goodbye to your numerical persecutors.

How can we solve the problem?

Researchers are now studying whether Maths anxiety can be combated using cognitive behaviour therapy, particularly a variety of CBT known as exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is often used to treat post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Therapists work with patients to help them summon up and face fears. The facing of fears often takes place in comforting environments, with music and positive imagery helping to relax the patient.

What could this look like for school age Maths? First, we might want to treat the Maths anxious to some very regular, short doses of numerical stimulus, as CBT does.

Second, we would help them to practice, little and often, building their belief in their ability to understand.

Third, we might want to backtrack through their studies to a point they feel comfortable with, and proceed in small steps from that point.

Fourth, we could help them take control of their learning, so that they pick the topics and the times at which they work. Because this is all about building confidence.

Fifth, we could make sure that they do learn at home, and in private, with friends and family as well as with teachers and classmates.

The classroom is a great learning environment, but if you don't get it, it can become threatening. You may feel keenly the humiliation of not understanding a concept that everyone else appears to have mastered. In this case supportive tuition with a formative assessment approach could help to eliminate some of the anxiety and take away some of the stress factors. This kind of supportive tuition doesn't have to be costly and there are plenty of free maths assessment apps that can help you identify your learning (or your child's learning gaps) so you know where you need to focus most.

For many years now, we've recognised dyslexia and taken steps to help people who suffer with it. In our ever more numerical society, we need to do the same for the Maths anxious.