Could My Child Have Math Anxiety?

By Daniel Ansari, PhD
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Q

My 9-year-old gets upset and stressed out when doing math. I was told math anxiety might be the cause. What is math anxiety? And why are some kids so afraid to do math?

A

I’m sorry to hear your child is feeling bad about math. A bit of explanation may help you understand why this can happen and how you can help.

Math anxiety is an intense feeling of stress, unease, or worry when having to do a math task. It can happen in lots of situations at school or at home. For example, kids may feel anxiety in class listening to instructions on a math problem or when they have to do math homework. They may also experience math anxiety when they compare themselves to their classmates.

Everyone feels anxious or uncertain at times. A little stress about a math assignment can even help kids be more productive. However, math anxiety is different and more serious. It can cause kids to avoid math, lose interest in school, or even do math problems incorrectly when they know the answers.

There’s no formal diagnosis for math anxiety, but this fear of math is very common. Researchers believe about 3 to 5 percent of kids experience math anxiety.

Unfortunately, we understand little about the causes of math anxiety. We do know, though, that it can’t be caused by a single bad experience with math. There’s also no evidence that speed drills or standardized tests cause math anxiety.

Math anxiety runs in families, so genetics may play a role. Repeated negative experiences with math could, too. Having an underlying difficulty with math, like dyscalculia, can also result in math anxiety.

Keep in mind, too, that some kids who feel math anxiety are very good at math. Anxiety about something doesn’t mean someone isn’t good at it. Some kids may struggle with math and have anxiety. But others have no trouble with math or even excel at it and still feel anxious.

You can take steps to help your child with math anxiety. The key is to pinpoint the specific situations that may trigger your child’s fears.

Look for patterns in your child’s behavior at home. And talk with teachers to find out what’s happening at school. Ask about when your child feels the most anxious, and what types of tasks seem to cause negative feelings. Then try to find ways to make those tasks less overwhelming.

The other thing you can do is make sure your child has a good foundation in math. It’s important for kids to study and learn basic math concepts. But it’s just as important for kids to feel confident about their ability to do basic math. Feeling competent can help kids feel less self-doubt.

Your child’s teacher can be a great resource for understanding what your child needs to work on, and how. What you don’t want to do is completely remove math if your child is feeling anxiety. That’s not helpful. As I mentioned, some stress can be good.

The goal is for your child to feel the right level of challenge—without being overwhelmed. I know that is easier said than done. But having the right balance is the most important thing.

Learn about the difference between math anxiety and dyscalculia. And find out more about why some kids have trouble with math.

About the Author

About the Author

Daniel Ansari, PhD 

is a professor in developmental cognitive neuroscience at Western University, Canada.

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