'Maths anxiety' is a real thing - but there are ways to cope

13 March 2023
Three tips for success
More than 1 million young Australians are set to sit the NAPLAN numeracy test on Wednesday, 15 March. Dr Ben Zunica and Dr Bronwyn Reid O'Connor, lecturers in Mathematics Education from the School of Education and Social Work, explain how to help if your child is experiencing maths anxiety.

From March 15, more than one million young Australians will sit the NAPLAN numeracy test. For most students, this will just be a routine part of the school day (albeit less fun than running around at recess or lunch).

But for others, the prospect of doing a maths test will be downright terrifying. These students may be suffering from maths anxiety.

We are academics in mathematics education. Here’s how to help your child if they are experiencing maths anxiety.

What is maths anxiety?

Maths anxiety is the feeling of tension and worry that interferes with a person’s ability to solve mathematical problems. Researchers consider maths anxiety to be distinct from general anxiety, or test anxiety, though there is some crossover.

Maths anxiety usually develops as a result of poor experiences with maths, which leads to negative thought patterns about your maths potential. These thoughts can manifest in an avoidance of maths and feelings of helplessness when confronted with tests.

Maths anxiety usually develops after a bad experience with maths. Photo credit: Adobe Stock

Maths anxiety is a common issue for many young people and adults and can be seen in children as young as five.

According to Stanford University mathematics education professor Jo Boaler, as of 2012, up to 50% of adults had maths anxiety. The Victorian Department of Education suggests rates are lower, at between six and 17%. However, the average rate in academic studies tends to be approximately 20%.

That means there are thousands of children who will be dreading the upcoming NAPLAN numeracy test.

So, what can a parent do to help their anxious child achieve their best in the NAPLAN numeracy test and other maths exams? Here are three practical things you can do right away and into the future:

1. Focus on successes to build confidence

Most children want to be good at maths. If they are younger, they will likely understand this is something their teachers and parents think is important. If they are older, they will know it is important for future jobs and careers.

One of the key sources of maths anxiety is despite wanting to be good at maths, students have received consistently negative feedback about their ability. This may just be by comparing themselves to others or more formally through poor results.

Take out old worksheets or tests from previous grades to build confidence. Photo credit: Adobe Stock

To reduce anxiety, it is important to focus on the positive, showing your child times where they have had success in maths. Experiences of success are vital in paving the way to further success in maths.

A practical way to demonstrate success is by getting the child to do an old worksheet, even as far back as two years ago. Students in years 5 and above could do a previous NAPLAN test at a lower level. This shows them how they have progressed.

After completing the sheet, focus on areas of strength – such as “you got all the long divisions correct!” – to help build confidence. This experience of success can be used as a base to then tackle more complicated tasks.

2. Avoid ‘NAPLAN overload’

Anxiety about NAPLAN and any other assessments can be exacerbated by over-emphasising its importance in the build up. A more constructive approach is to reassure your child there is no judgement in how they perform.

Currently, most schools are working hard to prepare students for NAPLAN and discussions about the test are regularly taking place. Because of this, it can be easy for children with maths anxiety to get “NAPLAN overload”. At home, it is useful to limit your discussion of the upcoming tests to times where the child is doing work to prepare for it.

We recommend trying to make the day an exciting one, rather than a terrifying one. For example, you might have a special NAPLAN breakfast on the day of the test.

3. Work alongside your child

During COVID many families felt the strain taking a hands-on role with their children’s education (who did not take kindly to mum or dad suddenly becoming their “teacher”). So parents may be tempted to leave their children alone to study or do homework. But this won’t help relieve maths anxiety.

A more beneficial approach is for for parents to study alongside younger children, and show interest in the work older children are completing. Teenagers may not be open to help when you offer the first time but make it clear that you’re there if they need you and you aren’t seeking to judge them.

Show interest in what your teenagers are doing in maths. Photo credit: Adobe Stock

This approach shows the child their parent is engaged with their work and positive about their ability to learn.

It cannot be underestimated how much a parents’ approach to learning maths influences their child’s approach. Try and have positive conversations with your child about maths and how we use it everyday. This can be help dispel negative attitudes, such as children thinking, “this is too hard and is just something I need to do at school”. You might want to use maths to work through a “best buy” at the supermarket or use length and area to determine how to arrange the furniture in a room.

As the test day nears, families should not have to stress out about NAPLAN. Preparation focused on celebrating successes and positive experiences can encourage students to simply do their best.

This article was originally published in The Conversation as ‘Maths anxiety’ is a real thing. Here are 3 ways to help your child cope. Dr Ben Zunica and Dr Bronwyn Reid O'Connor are lecturers in Mathematics Education in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work, where they specialise in secondary mathematics teaching practice and mathematics curriculum design. 

Top Photo: Adobe Stock

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