Math Icon

What is Math Anxiety?


Student With Head Down On Books

Many students claim not to like math. But for some, the issue with math is more than simply disliking algebra or fractions.

For some students, doing math can cause negative emotions like fear of failure. This harms their ability to perform.

This is called ‘math anxiety’.

Effects of Math Anxiety in Elementary and Secondary School Students

Math anxiety impacts students as early as the first grade by affecting their working memory. Working memory is like a ‘mental scratchpad’. It is important when we need to keep track of numbers. But this working memory can be disrupted by math anxiety in both elementary and secondary school students. This can lead students with math anxiety to be as much as half a school year behind their peers in math. Even for students who don’t struggle with math anxiety, it’s important to develop positive study habits that will help them as math becomes more complex.

What Causes Math Anxiety?

Major causes of math anxiety include:

  • The pressure caused by time limits on tests

  • The deadlines that timed tests impose on students lead them to feel anxious. This leads them to forget concepts that they have no problem remembering at home. Since these tests can have a negative impact on grades, the student’s fear of failure is confirmed. This creates a vicious circle that can be difficult to break.

  • The fear of public embarrassment

  • Math anxiety has also been linked to negative emotions from the past. If a student has been scolded for getting an answer wrong, it can make his or her anxiety worse. The same is true if he or she has been embarrassed in front of others.

  • Influence of teachers

  • Students can also pick up on their teacher’s feelings about math. If a teacher is excited and positive about math, the students will be as well. But if educators are negative about it, it can have the opposite effect.

Symptoms of Math Anxiety

If your child seems to be struggling with his or her math grades, look for the following symptoms of math anxiety:

  1. Unusual nervousness when doing or thinking about math

  2. Even thinking about the subject of math is enough to cause stress to the student.

  3. Passive behaviour

  4. The student is either too afraid of failure, or simply thinking about math brings so many negative emotions, that he or she is unwilling to even try.

  5. A feeling of being alone

  6. The student feels that he or she is the only one incapable of finding the solutions, even if the math is extremely complicated.

  7. A feeling of permanency

  8. The student begins to believe that he or she is naturally bad at math and always will be, so he or she gives up trying to improve.

  9. Lack of confidence

  10. The student expects never to know the answers to math questions, so the student depends on other people to do math for him or her. Example: expecting his or her parents to help with homework.

  11. Panic during tests or when called on to answer questions

The classroom becomes a major source of stress for the student, especially when he or she is taking a test or expected to contribute in class.

How to Prevent Math Anxiety

If your child struggles with these challenges, you’ve probably found yourself wondering how to handle math anxiety. It can affect any student, and the best way to prevent it is to build positive study habits.

Check out these math anxiety strategies to find out how to improve your child’s performance in the classroom.

4 math anxiety tips:

  1. Positive Reinforcement

  2. Students coping with math anxiety need to feel that they can excel at math.

    Review homework with your child and point out all the questions he or she got right. Put an emphasis on correct answers rather than mistakes. If possible, surround the student with positive teachers and students.

  3. Get a Tutor

  4. Teachers can have a great impact on a student’s feelings toward math. Even if the teacher is enthusiastic about math, supplement teaching with a qualified tutor. Tutors can provide personal attention that is hard to get at school. They can help students work through their problems in a low-pressure environment. Tutoring can also improve students’ self confidence.

  5. Reframe Anxiety

  6. Reframing anxiety can have an improvement in mathematics performance. Have a student write down his or her worries about math before doing it. By having to think critically, students can realize their fears are unfounded.

    Young children can draw pictures as a substitute for writing. Assist reframing by having students see tests and assignments as challenges instead of threats.

  7. Make Math Fun!

Try to create positive emotions by making math fun. One way to do this is to connect math to the child’s interests. For example, if the student likes sports, use sport-related word problems.

For more tips on how to boost math confidence, check out our video below.

Struggling With Math Anxiety?

If you know someone who struggles with math anxiety, Oxford Learning can help. View our math tutoring page for more details and find an Oxford Learning location near you!






Find an Oxford Learning® Location Near You!

We Have Over 100 Centres Across Canada!
Contact A Location

Our Privacy Policy has been updated to meet new regulations. Please read it here.