Maths anxiety and supporting your child

Have you ever said to your children, “I am not a Maths person too and that’s alright.”?

If you have, research says you are not doing your children any favours, and are in fact poised to pass on your Maths anxiety to them. You might think you are making your children feel better, being a supportive parent and trying to ease their own feelings of shortcoming regarding Maths, but you might, unknowingly, be making things worse.

For decades, the issue of Maths anxiety has been researched by scientists, psychologists and educators. It is a thing that actually exists, and can have repercussions on your choice of career and your working memory. How often have you given up trying to calculate how much paint to buy for your drawing room, or how to increase a cake recipe by another layer?

There are several symptoms of Maths anxiety – you may know if you have it, but how can you recognise it in your child? Students who hate Maths can put off studying it, or spend way too much time on it, with their stress levels climbing as they do. They can avoid opening their books or doing their homework and just copy it from their friends. They might get overwhelmed doing Maths or during a test, so that they tend to give up too easily and feel dejected even before they begin.

Maths anxiety is something that can be passed on from parent to child, but only, this is important – only if such parents try to help their children with homework and studying for tests while revealing their own issues with Maths. Girls tend to have more Maths anxiety than boys (though it is a social myth that boys are better at Maths than girls – just one of those self-fulfilling prophecies), and most of the 10-20% of adults who have this condition claim it began with middle school algebra.

It can apparently start even earlier than this, and one of the reasons seem to be that most primary teachers are women, who tend to have more Maths anxiety themselves and pass this on to their students. So what is the result of this, and can anything be done about it?

Maths anxiety is something that can cripple people who feel it. Most of the time, the origin can be traced to a teacher in some way. Either your teacher was not good at Maths and so could not teach you well, or your teacher was a Maths expert who was impatient with students who did not grasp Maths as easily as others did.

Many people avoid taking Maths in their higher studies, or shy away from careers and qualifications that require it. This is unfortunate, as I know as a teacher that it is only a question of teaching Maths in the way that a student can understand and feel confident about.

It does not mean that all female primary teachers are to be blamed, nor are parents who feel unconfident about Maths who help their children with homework. This shows that we should train teachers to be confident about the subject, and who can explain it in a non-judgemental way to students who struggle with it. And you might have to change the way you help your child with Maths.

I know this sounds terrible for well-meaning parents. We have enough people telling us all the things we are doing wrong that mess up our children, the last thing we want to do to our precious offspring. Haven’t people been telling us to spend more time with our children and help them with homework and studying? Does this mean we need to immediately stop helping our children with Maths? No, not at all. What it does mean is that we need to realise that our children learn things from us without us realising it, and be actively aware of this.

So a way to make sure that the word Maths does not cause anxiety in your house is to make your environment a positive one for Maths. Make sure children see you doing Maths in daily life, like counting change and looking at product labels and prices during your weekly shop, while calculating how much of what you will need to buy for the week’s dinner.

Tell your children that you will do your ‘Maths homework’ as they do theirs. Do your weekly accounts and go through your credit card statement. Also, ask for help from your child’s teachers, get their textbooks in advance, sign up for a MOOC course and become more confident about Year 8 Maths. Have your children do Maths in a study group, if that is possible. Start a parent’s Maths group for your school or join one online, as you can count on the fact that there are others who hate Maths as much as you do.

Another thing you could do is find a tutor for Maths. I know how important Maths is for children for their 11+ and SAT exams. The last thing we want is children shying away from Maths at A levels and university, as STEM subjects are very important and your child could choose a great career if they lose their lack of love for Maths. Tutoring is a great idea and can solve a lot of problems with Maths. Tutors know how to teach Maths to students who struggle with it and tricks to help them ace exams in it as well. There are ways and means that we tutors know of to reduce anxiety and increase confidence.

Research shows that Maths anxiety is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and people who suffer from it have less working memory while doing Maths tasks, as they struggle with stress and a feeling of hopeless incompetence. This means that the worse you think you are at Maths, the worse you probably perform at Maths tasks.

And that is the last thing you want to pass onto your children. So make sure you are honest with yourself about how much Maths anxiety you have (take a Maths anxiety quiz online if you are unsure) and take steps to make sure that the cycle stops with you! I will be happy to advise you.

Elisa x