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What is math anxiety?

By Daniel Ansari, PhD

At a Glance

  • Math anxiety is an intense feeling of worry about math, or fear of math.

  • Even kids who have strong math skills can experience math anxiety.

  • It’s different from dyscalculia, but the signs can look similar.

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Math anxiety is more than getting stressed out over a math test. It’s an intense feeling of worry or fear people have when they have to do a math task. It can happen at home, at school, or at work.

For example, kids may feel anxiety when teachers explain a math problem in class. They may also feel anxious when they have to do math homework. Or when they compare themselves to other kids.

Kids can feel anxious about math without it becoming a problem. A little stress about a math assignment can even help kids be more productive.

But math anxiety is different and more serious. It can cause kids to avoid math, lose interest in school, or even do math problems wrong when they know the answers.

Math anxiety isn’t a diagnosis, but this fear of math is very common. Researchers believe about 3 to 5 percent of kids experience math anxiety.

Adults can experience math anxiety, too. But they may not be faced with frequent math tasks the way kids are.

Dive deeper

Signs of math anxiety in kids

What are signs of math anxiety in kids? They may:

  • Worry they’ll do poorly on a math test, even though they understand the material and have studied

  • Try to avoid going to math class when there’s a quiz or a test

  • Get good grades on math homework and classwork, but not on tests

We don’t know exactly what causes math anxiety. We do know, though, that having just one bad experience with math doesn’t cause it. 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 bad experiences with math could, too. Having underlying trouble with math can also lead to math anxiety.

Math anxiety vs. dyscalculia

Dyscalculia is a learning difference that causes trouble with math. But dyscalculia isn’t the same as math anxiety. Math anxiety can make kids question their abilities in math, even if they have strong skills.

Even though dyscalculia and math anxiety are different, the signs can overlap. And it’s possible for someone to have both. 

Learn more about the difference between dyscalculia and math anxiety .

How to help with math anxiety

Understanding basic math concepts can help ease math anxiety. But it’s just as important for kids to feel confident about their ability to do basic math. This helps them feel less self-doubt.

What you don’t want to do is completely remove math from a child who’s feeling math anxiety. That’s not helpful. Some stress can be good. The goal is for kids to feel the right level of challenge — without being overwhelmed.

Parents and teachers can work together to help kids with math anxiety. It’s important to know what triggers the anxiety. Try to look for patterns in the behavior you’re seeing and jot them down. Do certain types of math tasks cause anxiety?

Parents and caregivers can use these conversation starters to talk with teachers about math difficulties.

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  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Email
  • Text Message
  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom