Why children often struggle with maths in school

10th May 2016 at 18:34

REASON 1: "The most important learning state is often absent."

Carl Gustav Jung

"The teacher pretended that algebra was a perfectly natural affair, to be taken for granted, whereas I didn't even know what numbers were. Mathematics classes became sheer terror and torture to me.
I was so intimidated by my incomprehension that I did not dare to ask any questions."

Carl Gustav Jung - Swiss psychiatrist, an influential thinker and the founder of Analytical Psychology.

Young children are natural learners. They are genetically programmed to learn.

Here's how Alison Gobnik, Ph.D, Andrew N. Meltzoff, Ph.D, and Patricia K. Kuhl, Ph. D, describe a baby's capacity for learning:

"Walk upstairs, open the door gently, and look in the crib. What do you see? Most of us see a picture of innocence and helplessness, a clean slate. But, in fact, what we see in the crib is the greatest mind that has ever existed, the most powerful learning machine in the universe."

FromThe Scientist in the Crib’.

Why is it then that at some point in the not too distant future many parents throw their hands up in despair and wonder, "Whatever happened to that happy child who couldn't wait to go to school?"

Now every day is a battle. Headaches, sickness, tantrums, tears . . . there just has to be a reason. Could it be bullying . . . school phobia  . . . a personality clash with the teacher? It's possible but it's just as likely it could be a subject your child is desperately trying to avoid. A subject that invokes anxiety and fear and can produce a physical reaction that is very real.

Subject Genius, Phil Rowlands, Why Children Often Struggle With Maths in School

It might be something you suffered from yourself, something you still feel guilty and ashamed of! That's right . . . the maths lesson. Maths Anxiety or MA is now a recognised condition. It is described as "a feeling of tension and anxiety that interferes with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in ordinary life and academic situations" (Mark H Ashcroft).

In 1982 one of the most comprehensive reports into the teaching of mathematics in schools ever undertaken was published. The enquiry entitled ‘Mathematics Counts’ was chaired by Dr W. H. Cockroft who wrote:

“The extent to which the need to undertake even an apparently simple and straightforward piece of mathematics could induce feelings of anxiety, helplessness, fear and guilt in some of those interviewed was, perhaps, the most striking feature of the study (para 2.20)”

This ‘condition’ was not related to any specific academic group. In fact those with higher academic qualifications felt a greater sense of guilt at their poor grasp of mathematics.

The comments below were taken from posts on myLot.com in response to the question:

 "Ever had a most hated subject when you were in school?"

They were representative of 70% of the responses.

"I despised math of any kind. To me it was like trying to learn another language...all of it. I still hate it! Anything involving math makes my head hurt."

"I hated math. It was horrible.  And the teachers . . . couldn't explain it very well because they didn't understand why we don't understand!"

"I thought it was the most boring and confusing subject . . .  That would be my idea of hell having to sit through math classes!"

Subject Genius, Phil Rowlands, Why Children Often Struggle With Maths in School

Twenty years from now will our children be posting comments like these on some website blog? By then the damage will have been done. More to the point what has changed since the Cockroft Report was published? Many would argue very little and if so, why not? Is it because ideology has become more important than pedagogy? Successive governments have obsessed about comparing children and schools through the implementation of a rigid framework of testing. The term ‘teaching to the test’ was coined to describe an unwelcome consequence of this ideologically driven philosophy. The Education Minister for Wales recently defended testing by declaring he wants to know how his child is performing compared to other children. Why? Would it not be better to concentrate on improving teaching skills and then surely the rest will take care of itself.

In England parents are rebelling against the imposition of SAT testing. The Let Kids Be Kids group has already collected over 27,000 signatures in its campaign to end SAT testing. Many parents I encountered during my tenure as a head teacher often stated, “As long as my child is happy (in school).” Obviously our school strove to achieve a lot more for their children but nevertheless these parents instinctively articulated a deep truth, unless children are secure and happy they are not ready to learn.

So, what do we need to do to ensure our children are not intimidated and terrorised to the point where they are actually afraid to ask a question? Apparently Einstein's mother never asked him what he learnt in school only what questions he asked. When a child is too intimidated or embarrassed to ask a question then there is a serious problem somewhere that needs to be addressed urgently.

The most important state as an absolute prerequisite for learning is the emotional state. This is particularly true for young children. If a child is feeling stressed, intimidated or if something has upset him prior to arriving at school he will not be in any state to learn anything. Stress causes the equivalent of an electrical storm in the brain cutting off access to all the areas of the brain that control our higher thinking skills. Maths seems to induce more stress than any other subject.

Ideally children need an environment where they feel secure and where learning maths can be challenging but always fun. On the premise 'prevention is better than cure' it would be best if this learning environment was established as soon as a child starts school. As Wordsworth so wonderfully expressed it:

“Shades of the prison-house begin to close Upon the growing Boy, But He beholds the light, and whence it flows, He sees it in his joy. . .”

Schools should surely provide those joyful learning experiences not impose a system that reinforces many a child’s prison-house sense of failure.

Subject Genius, Phil Rowlands, Why Children Often Struggle With Maths in School

Interestingly, Cockroft noted, many ascribed their aversion to maths to a specific cause when they were young. Evidence suggests that being by nature a hierarchical subject the way maths is introduced to young children is of fundamental importance in the formation of their future attitude towards it. More time is needed for hands on tactile experiences before children are forced onto the prescribed treadmill of testing. Listen to this revealing comment that appeared in a website blog relating to the use of maths manipulatives in the classroom.

Frischy 4 years ago from Kentucky, USA

“As a child I hated math, but loved playing with blocks. Isn't it too bad that someone did not find a way to build on (excuse the pun) my natural mathematical inclination? At that time (mid-1960s) the move was away from all manipulatives, including counting on fingers, and math was done entirely by rote. There was no effort to form any kind of concept for why 2+2=4. There was no effort to each kids to think mathematically. It was all memorization & don't think about it. I hated it and did poorly. Something like these rods might have made all the difference. Perhaps now I would be nuclear physicist instead of a struggling writer. Lol”

(From Hubpages)

In place of a deeper understanding of number that could be provided by the use of manipulatives emphasis appears to be on teaching specific techniques so children can ‘show’ their ‘workings’ on the test paper. This is taken as evidence of ‘understanding.’ In reality all we are doing is teaching children to jump through an artificial set of hoops. It begs the question “Did anyone actually read the Cockroft Report?

There is little point in criticism unless you have something constructive to offer as an alternative. Over the next series of blogs I intend to not only outline the most common reasons why children are likely to fail at maths but to offer a positive alternative. It will involve undertaking a journey of self-discovery alongside your children through a rich and colourful landscape of pattern and relationships guided by play, games and open-ended activities? A journey that will ensure your children grasp the most important math concepts naturally and incidentally as they engage in play and problem solving that is always matched to their level of development?

I hope you decide to join me.



If you wish to see the resources created by Phil please visit his TES shop:



Phil Rowlands is a semi-retired head teacher and author of educational programmes and fiction.