The paper is describing helping children with maths-anxiety through research-based support.  It supports the guardians/parents and adults in children’s lives who are wanting to provide informed help to the children in their care.

Illustration by Cayla Basson

When students present with anxiety, one of the first, and natural, responses from parents and teachers is to reduce exposure to the stimulus causing the anxiety in the first place. For example, an 8-year-old who is scared of the dark is given a night light to calm her down. A 15-year-old who develops extreme anxiety to test situations is offered a separate venue in which to write. Even our verbal responses as adults when it comes to helping children manage anxiety is focused on reducing exposure to the stimulus – “Don’t worry, it’s just one tiny injection in your arm. You won’t even feel it”. This can be a common response to students with maths anxiety – “Just do these five sums and then you can stop” or “It’s only half an hour of algebra homework; it’s not a lot”. While these responses are well-intentioned and normally done with the goal of reducing anxiety, they can backfire and create more of a problem when it comes to maths anxiety. 

From a psychological perspective, exposure to the source of anxiety is referred to as exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is based on the perspective that, while avoidance of anxiety-causing situations might reduce feelings of anxiety in the short term, it can exacerbate the anxiety in the long term. In this form of therapy, psychologists create a secure environment in which to “expose” the patient to the very stimulus they are avoiding in the first place. The good news is that this form of therapy is extremely effective in treating anxiety of all kinds, including specific phobias, generalised anxiety and maths anxiety.

Research shows that exposure of learners with high maths anxiety to more maths, not less, is the answer to reducing the anxiety in the first place. Borgonovi and Pokropek (2019) in a study aptly named “Seeing is Believing” looked at task exposure and the development of self-efficacy in mathematics. They found that increased exposure to mathematics problems is associated with the development of self-efficacy among students. Even more encouragingly, they found that the relationship between self-efficacy and task exposure is not moderated by anxiety towards maths or socioeconomic status. In other words, ensuring maths curricula are designed to include as much exposure to maths as possible is something that works for a wide range of students with a wide range of needs. Another study, this time focused on neuroimaging of children with high maths anxiety, produced similar results. Supekar et al. (2015) involved two groups of children (an experimental group with higher maths anxiety and a control group with lower maths anxiety) in an 8-week one-on-one tutoring program to improve maths skills. fMRI scans found that higher maths anxious students had abnormal neural responses in the amygdala pre-intervention. The amygdala is best known as the part of the brain that drives the so-called “fight or flight” response, and our management of anxiety. After the 8-week intervention, these abnormal responses had disappeared, and the experimental group showed no differences in brain activation between higher and lower maths anxious children.

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

This information can assist parents and teachers in supporting children in their relationship with mathematics. Here are a few simple ideas, suggested by researchers:

  • Petersen and Hyde (2017) found that parents who use number-rich board games at home are provided with the opportunity to model a positive attitude towards maths, which is a powerful way to decrease maths anxiety in a child. Note that the focus here is not on gamifying maths for children (which is also a useful technique) but assisting parents with modeling a good relationship with maths.


  • Parents and teachers need to communicate a balance in their messaging about maths. While games are helpful and make maths fun, researchers advocate the idea of teaching a child that this is not always the case, and that’s ok (Hiebert & Grouws, 2007). The message is that struggling and engaging in processes to make sense of maths is as important as having fun with maths.


Help children not to personalize their struggles with maths. The bio-psychological model of challenge (Blascovich & Mendes, 2010) argues that situational demands can be viewed as threats when the individual believes he/she does not have the resources to address those demands. In contrast, individuals who believe they have the resources to meet the demand of the situation are more likely to view the situation as a challenge, and not a threat. This can be done practically through normalizing maths anxiety and helping students not to take struggling with maths as a personal attack on their ability. Teach students that some heightened psychological arousal is actually conducive for optimal performance in mathematics (Jamieson et al., 2016). In other words, feeling some anxiety is a good thing.

This article highlights an interesting paradox. Parents and teachers can reduce maths anxiety in a child by increasing the child’s exposure to mathematics. This might very well increase some anxiety in the short term, however, it has huge benefits for the long term.

Resources used:

Blascovich, J., & Mendes, W. B. (2010). Social psychophysiology and embodiment. In S. T. Fiske & D. T. Gilbert (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (5th ed., pp. 194–227). New York, NY: Wiley.

Borgonovi, F., & Pokropek, A. (2019). Seeing is believing: Task-exposure specificity and the development of mathematics self-efficacy evaluations. Journal of Educational Psychology, 111(2), 268–283.

Hiebert, J., & Grouws, D. A. (2007). The effects of classroom mathematics teaching on students’ learning. Second handbook of research on mathematics teaching and learning, 1, 371–404.

Jamieson, J. P., Peters, B. J., Greenwood, E. J., & Altose, A. J. (2016). Reappraising stress arousal improves performance and reduces evaluation anxiety in classroom exam situations. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7, 579–587. doi:10.1177/1948550616644656

Petersen, J. L., & Hyde, J. S. (2017). Trajectory of self-perceived math ability, utility value and interest across middle school as predictors of high school math performance. Educational Psychology, 37, 438–456. doi:10.1080/01443410.2015.1076765

Supekar, Kaustubh & Iuculano, Teresa & Lang, Chen & Menon, Vinod. (2015). Remediation of Childhood Math Anxiety and Associated Neural Circuits through Cognitive Tutoring. Journal of Neuroscience. 35. 12574-12583. 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0786-15.2015. 


Educational Psychologist

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