How to tackle maths anxiety in your class

One academic who is researching ways to combat maths anxiety offers guidance for teachers
18th October 2019, 12:03am
How Can Teachers Alleviate Pupils' Maths Anxiety?


How to tackle maths anxiety in your class

The vague churning in the bowels, the horror of impending humiliation, the strong desire to sink into a hole in the floor. These are all familiar sensations for those who suffer from maths anxiety. And, oddly, breaking out in a cold sweat over algebra or arithmetic is regarded as culturally normal - in Britain at least.

Even more worryingly, a recent study from the University of Cambridge and the Nuffield Foundation (Szucs et al, 2019) warns that these symptoms can be found in children as young as 6.

But so much of the talk around maths anxiety seems to be about proving it exists - and a lot of the research concentrates on this, too, which isn’t much help for educators. So, is there evidence about what works if teachers, teaching assistants and parents want to tackle maths anxiety?

Our nurturing instincts might lead us to smooth the way and give these young people only the problems we know they can easily solve. Or time pressure might force us to take a more impatient approach, continuing to present a child with problems that stress them out, and blaming them for their repeated failure to understand.

However, Sue Johnston-Wilder, associate professor of mathematics education at the University of Warwick, advocates looking things from a different angle.

She believes it is possible to help pupils find the right level of challenge, without overwhelming them, by examining what is happening on an emotional level. Much of her work researching and promoting the concept of “mathematical resilience” relies on the notion that, through understanding the anxiety, we can overcome it.

First, Johnston-Wilder stresses, we need to appreciate that, for maths anxiety sufferers, even contemplating maths can cause some alarming changes in the brain. She points to a study from the University of Chicago (Lyons et al, 2012). This showed that, when anticipating an upcoming maths task, people with maths anxiety had increased activity in the brain regions associated with visceral threat detection and the experience of pain.

When panic multiplies

The authors found that this relationship was not seen while the people studied were actually doing maths, suggesting that it is not maths itself that hurts but the anticipation - or the mere idea - of it.

And this can inhibit rational thought. “If you’re in panic mode, the maths part of your brain doesn’t work because your brain’s trying to save your life,” Johnston-Wilder says, citing the work of Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, US.

“Your brain’s alarm system, the amygdala - the stuff that’s 100 million years old and good at saving lives - can’t tell the difference between physical pain and social pain.”

Indeed, researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine (Young et al, 2012), who used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study children in the seven- to nine-year-old age group, found that mathematics anxiety was associated with high levels of activity in the regions of the amygdala involved in processing negative emotions. There was also reduced activity in those regions associated with mathematical problem-solving.

“The policies and the practice [in schools] don’t recognise that, if the child feels under threat, they won’t be able to answer ‘What is 7x8?’ in the moment,” Johnston-Wilder explains.

Throwing repeated problems at pupils in the hope that familiarity will build resilience is, therefore, unlikely to work.

The second thing it is important to acknowledge, Johnston-Wilder argues, is that those with maths anxiety have, at some point, been “psychologically harmed” in a maths context - for example, by how it was taught to them, or at home - or have been close to someone who has.

“We had one middle-aged woman who told us her own story about knocking on the staffroom door to ask the maths teacher for more help and being shouted at, with ‘Haven’t you got it yet?’ in front of her 14-year-old peers - she was very tearful telling her story,” Johnston-Wilder says.

You may think this is an extreme example but, while the early years foundation stage is relatively “psychologically safe” and child-centred, teaching approaches in later years can result in young people feeling humiliated, ignored, excluded or left behind, Johnston-Wilder argues. Targets and the lack of “rough spaces” to make mistakes in safety can all feed into this.

“There has to be recognition of the role of the affective domain - people’s emotions, beliefs, values - when they are doing maths,” she adds. “We tend to see maths as a cold, clinical thing where emotions don’t have a role, but research has shown they do.”

Prime factors

Once we understand these factors in maths anxiety more fully, Johnston-Wilder argues, we can better support pupils. Through her work at the University of Warwick, she has been researching and promoting the use of three classroom tools that allow staff to encourage students to talk openly about their emotional and physical states when faced with maths tasks.

The first, known as the “growth zone model”, gives students a way of articulating and understanding their levels of anxiety or comfort, depending on what they are working on.

It consists of a simple diagram of a green circle marked “comfort”, surrounded by an orange ring marked “growth”, and outside that is the panic “red zone”.

The idea is that students aim to be working in the “growth zone” whenever possible, feeling the nervousness of being challenged, but not the total panic of the red zone.

“A similar idea comes up in counselling culture, where you have comfort-stretch-panic, and in outward bound-type education, when you talk about working at the edge,” says Johnston-Wilder.

The key is to help students to understand how they might feel in each of the zones. “You spend the lesson talking about the growth zone model and you really make people aware of these three zones - you can print them out, put them on the desk,” she says. “So, if the teaching assistant goes over to a child with their hand up and they’re in the red zone, then the teacher will help the child calm down and won’t start talking maths at them because you have to soothe.

“If they’re in their orange zone, then they can start doing the cognitive stuff [see the next step below]. As soon as you introduce the growth zone model, it just raises everybody’s awareness of what’s actually going on emotionally.”

The “cognitive stuff” is the second tool, which introduces pupils to the “hand model of the brain”, developed by Siegel. It is about recognising when panic mode has set in. This involves visualising the human brain using one hand. The wrist and palm are the primitive reptilian brain stem, which controls basic things such as heart rate, respiration and how we respond to incoming threats. The thumb bent over the palm is the limbic or mammalian brain: the emotional centre. The fingers and knuckles folded over the top represent the parts of the brain dedicated to higher-level thinking and rational decision-making: the prefrontal cortex and the cerebral cortex.

You can use this to teach young people that, when they are very stressed and panic takes over, the top part of their brain (represented by the fingers) has flipped up, allowing the lower parts of the brain that contain the ancient fight-flight-freeze responses to take over.

Safety in numbers

“The hand model of the brain can be taken into the exam with you, because it’s portable,” explains Johnston-Wilder. “You can recognise when you are panicking and say, ‘Oh, OK, I’ve got to calm down.’ ”

The third tool involves teaching pupils about the “relaxation response”, an idea based on the work of Dr Herbert Benson, a highly regarded US-based pioneer of mind-body medicine (Benson, 2000). This is a state of deep relaxation - the opposite reaction to the fight-or-flight response - which can be activated through breathing techniques and mindfulness exercises that educators can teach to their pupils.

Together, Johnston-Wilder believes, these tools can begin to provide the support that those with maths anxiety require. “If you introduce these tools … pupils and teachers can name the problem, label their feelings,” she says. “They are able to realise they need to go for coffee or a walk and come back.”

Although Johnston-Wilder and her colleagues are yet to carry out a large quantitative study into the effects of teachers using these techniques, they have overseen teachers and postgraduate students carrying out research projects to test them out.

For example, one primary school using the growth zone model, working with Year 5 and Year 6 pupils on maths investigations, found that “certain children who, following the first activity, had quickly moved to their anxiety zone had now learned to recognise the cause of their panic and strategies that would help them to approach a task more confidently”, says Johnston-Wilder.

Another study, looking at the impact of using the growth-zone model on a group of 17 post-16 students, who had experienced repeated failure at GCSE, found it had a positive effect in terms of both measured maths anxiety and maths resilience.

“It’s absolutely outrageous that the government should spend all that public money on resits without giving the students an intervention to help them manage the triggers they have when they are faced with in maths,” Johnston-Wilder says. “The idea that we are writing off 16-year-olds and 19-year-olds as unable to do maths when their brains are still growing is so outdated.”

The hope is that further trials of the tools will bring positive results so that we can move on from just identifying maths anxiety to actively tackling it.

Irena Barker is an education writer. She tweets @IrenaBarker

This article originally appeared in the 18 October 2019 issue under the headline “Tes focus on...Alleviating maths anxiety”

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