What causes maths anxiety?

Maths anxiety is nothing new. John Napier, in 1570, stated: ‘Multiplication is vexation, division is bad. The rule of three doth puzzle me, and practice drives me mad.’ 

Yet, he was one of the most celebrated mathematicians of his time and is best known as the person who discovered logarithms. He also invented the so-called ‘Napier's bones’ and made common the use of the decimal point in arithmetic and mathematics.

Maths anxiety has been defined as: ‘The panic, helplessness, paralysis, and mental disorganisation that arises among some people when they are required to solve a mathematical problem.’ (Tobias and Weissbrod, 1980)

Robinson and Simone (1976) defined math anxiety as: ‘Feelings of tension and anxiety that interfere with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of problems in a wide variety of ordinary life and academic situations.’

Maths anxiety is very common and can range from a mild anxiety around doing maths to a paralysing fear of maths. In some cases, it can be so extreme that even seeing someone else doing maths can trigger the anxiety.


What can cause maths anxiety?

Timed tests

Having to work under time pressure is one of the major causes of maths anxiety. When we are stressed, our working memory can be affected, which makes clear thinking even harder, and the child is much less likely to be able to complete timed tasks than ones that are untimed.

Answering questions in front of others

In the same way that we would not ask a dyslexic child to read out loud in front of the class, we should be mindful of asking children with maths anxiety and/or maths learning difficulties to answer questions in front of their peers. It is much better for the class to all show their answers on a white board than for one individual child to answer in front of everyone else.

Working in isolation

Countries that have very low levels of maths anxiety, such as Singapore, allow children to work in mixed ability groups. This enables children who are struggling with a particular question to be supported by more confident children and allows them time to share their thoughts and ideas.


League tables

Having competition between children, for example in their multiplication tables, will only be motivating for the children at the top. It is much better to have children compare their results against their own previous performance. A child who scores 2 out of 10 one week and then 3 out of ten the following week has improved by 50%. Whereas a child who has scored 10 out of 10 in both weeks has not improved by 50%.

The curriculum

There is a lot of pressure to get through a great deal of curriculum content, and this can lead to fast-paced, top-level teaching where children need to rely on a lot of recall of facts and procedures. It might be conveyed to learners that being fast at maths equates to being good at maths, and too much emphasis might also be placed on getting the answer right over exploring efficient strategies or learning from mistakes.

Teacher’s attitude to and/or experience of maths

Firstly, some teachers are anxious about maths and may not feel confident in teaching maths above a certain level. This can lead to teaching in more of a procedural way, which in turn may not develop a deep level of understanding in the children they teach.

Teachers may not be aware of the existence of maths anxiety and therefore are not alert to the strategies they could put in place to alleviate it. They may also have had bad experiences of maths in their own education.

Finally, the language that is used in a maths classroom may inadvertently causes distress in a child and this can have an impact on the child’s confidence in the maths classroom and their self- esteem.


Parental attitudes to maths

Parents who lack confidence in maths and who are anxious about it tend to pass this attitude and anxiety on to their children. They may say things like ‘Oh I was never any good at maths at school’ and almost give their child permission to be ‘bad’ at maths.


Many learners with maths difficulties or dyscalculia have maths anxiety and they also tend to have a fixed mindset about their ability and/or potential in maths. These children may have had years of experiencing failure in maths, having to follow a fast-paced curriculum and often being taught in a procedural way where the emphasis is on fact recall and speed. They have learnt to believe that they are no good at maths and never will be. But it doesn’t have to be that way! By understanding the causes of maths anxiety and how to alleviate it, we can turn the fortunes around for these learners. We can help them on the road to becoming numerate adults, who don’t fear maths and can cope with the maths that they need to do on a daily basis.

The key to helping learners overcome their maths anxiety is to be able to identify it and to explore the cause. SNAP Maths will help you to ascertain the level of a learner’s anxiety and its triggers through teacher, parent/carer and pupil questionnaires and help you to put the right support in place.


Assessment, Intervention and SEN, Maths, SEN, SENCO, SEND

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