Tackling maths anxiety

Teacher Teaching Spelling To Elementary School Pupils

Alexandra Riley looks at how to build pupils’ confidence and engagement with maths 

If you have pupils with SEN and disabilities who suffer from maths anxiety, they are far from alone. Maths anxiety affects thousands of people across the nation and is widely acknowledged as a barrier to engagement and progress in maths, as well as other areas of education, employment and life.

The good news is that maths anxiety can be tackled. By developing a widespread understanding of maths anxiety, schools can start to take steps to build the confidence of pupils with SEN and help them progress in the classroom and beyond. 

What is maths anxiety
Leading academic Sue Johnston-Wilder describes maths anxiety as “a negative emotional reaction to mathematics that acts as an ‘emotional handbrake’ and holds up progress in maths.”1

It’s something that can affect all individuals at all ages and stages of learning. It’s thought that one in ten eight to 13-year-olds in Britain suffer from maths anxiety,2 with recent studies reporting that children as young as four can feel anxious about maths.3

Maths anxiety can manifest in many ways, from a feeling of mild tension through to experiencing a strong and deep-rooted fear of maths. For pupils with SEN, it may be one of a number of factors affecting how they learn in maths.

The causes of maths anxiety are likely to be complex in the case of pupils with SEN; however, research has shown common causation factors which seem to feature irrespective of age, gender, ethnicity or additional needs. When an individual feels in danger of failing, being socially excluded or embarrassed when working on a maths-related task, maths anxiety can occur as part of a fight or flight response. Many pupils have highlighted experiencing maths anxiety when they’ve found the work too difficult, feel in competition with peers, sensed gender bias, experienced insensitivity from teachers, or lacked remediation.4

There is evidence to indicate that the majority of those who experience maths anxiety tend to be “empathisers” – learners with a “feeling” rather than a “thinking” preference. Pupils with SEN demonstrating a tendency towards “feeling” may need particular attention when it comes to tackling maths anxiety.

Spotting the signs
Maths anxiety can elicit physical and emotional reactions such as frustration, anger, avoidance, distress and helplessness.   

One of the challenges in identifying maths anxiety is that it may not always be visible. As recent in-school research projects have highlighted,5 many symptoms of maths anxiety appear similar to those of poor behaviour. This can mean that there’s a risk of misattribution and pupils not being able to get the support they need. There are numerous similarities between presentations of maths anxiety and poor behaviour such as not starting work, spending too much time on easy questions, automatically responding “I don’t know” to spoken questions or claiming they don’t know where to start. There is also saying the first number than comes to mind, not showing working out and not completing, or doing the bare minimum for homework. 

In SEN settings, identification is further complicated by the spectrum of additional needs and difficulties these pupils may experience. Therefore, it’s particularly important in these settings to develop an understanding of how pupils feel about maths and pinpoint any maths-specific anxiety that could be acting as a barrier to learning. 

Depending on what’s right for your school and pupils, you could provide different ways for them to communicate their feelings on a regular basis, through conversations or questionnaires. Staff surveys can further help in identifying and tracking maths anxiety, as well as informing appropriate interventions

Teaching practice and homework
Setting maths homework and encouraging maths activities at home can have the power to impact on children’s learning and perceptions of maths. For these to have a positive effect, however, it’s vital that tasks have appropriate support and scaffolding to avoid children feeling helpless.

It has also been highlighted by teachers and leading academics that an overemphasis on speed and pace of answering questions can be an issue.6 This can lead to an atmosphere of competition which may increase the potential “risk” of humiliation. It can particularly disadvantage pupils with SEN who often value thinking time, working with additional supports such as manipulatives, or drawing diagrams to aid their learning. As a result, this can hamper their depth of understanding and also increase stress. 

It is well worth looking for factors within your control – such as school policies and teaching practices – where you could tweak your approach in order to alleviate this type of stress and anxiety. Also look closely at the tools you use. High-quality resources, including textbooks, teacher guides, online materials and videos, are great for outlining essential subject knowledge; providing carefully structured questions to consolidate learning and develop skills; guiding teachers in supporting learners at every attainment level; and enabling them to effectively assess their pupils. 

Working with parents and carers
Sharing the definition, potential causes and manifestations of maths anxiety with parents/carers will raise awareness of the issue outside the school gates. Providing fun maths activities that focus on enjoyment and problem-solving strategies, as well as examples of positive maths talk at home, will continue your work in influencing pupils’ (and even parents/carers’) perceptions and confidence in maths. 

Fun, real-world application of maths

Take this opportunity with parents and carers to celebrate individual achievements, breaking down stereotypes about who is “good at maths”. Raising the profile of diverse individuals in STEM subjects can show that maths is for all. It is vital to promoting inclusion for pupils with SEN, not just with parents but with all, to demonstrate that their additional needs or difficulties do not exclude them from achieving at school or experiencing a fulfilling career.

Build resilience and success in maths
There are numerous ways you can help build your pupils’ resilience and success in maths, including the following methods.

Bring maths to life
Getting the context right can be crucial. Sometimes, tasks covering content at the right level for pupils with SEN are designed for younger students. These tasks may feel patronising and lead to disengagement. 

If pupils experience fun, real-world applications of maths that are relevant to what they see and understand on a daily basis, maths stops being an abstract concept and becomes normalised: it becomes something that is meaningful, all around us and accessible.

Task troubleshooting
Carefully scaffolded tasks that start with accessible questions can boost pupils’ confidence by enabling them to gradually build success. Setting open tasks that prioritise exploration over “right” answers can provide the perfect opportunity for pupils to express what they do know, rather than focusing on what they do not yet understand. 

Use the Growth Zone Model

This model by Lugalia et. al (2013)7 gives students a way to name and communicate their feelings, helping to reduce anxiety and build resilience. It includes:

  1. The comfort zone (students work on familiar tasks independently).
  2. The growth zone (new learning happens here, it’s safe to find activities challenging).
  3. The anxiety zone (here, what is being asked is not within the student’s reach at that moment and the student starts to experience threat rather than challenge).

You could print and use this as a physical and visual aid in the classroom with your pupils. For example, pupils can place an object on the colours of the model at regular intervals to indicate their emotions.

This will not only enable teachers to better understand what their students may need, but it can also help pupils to be more aware of their emotional responses and equip them with the confidence to tackle whatever maths might lie ahead in future years. This could have particular benefits for pupils with autism: some teachers have reported that their autistic pupils very much appreciate the opportunity to develop their awareness and communication around feelings.

Whilst maths anxiety won’t be tackled overnight, educators are perfectly positioned to make a positive difference by helping young people with SEN to access maths, grow in confidence and be part of the community of people who enjoy the life-changing power of maths. Here’s to the beginning of more discussion on this important topic.

About the author
Alexandra Riley is Senior Strategy Manager at Pearson. This article is based on insights from the #PowerOfMaths Tackling Maths Anxiety 2019 roundtable.


1: Pearson (2019). A Guide to Tackling Maths Anxiety. Available at: go.pearson.com/tacklingmathsanxiety 

2: Carey, E., Devine, A., Hill, F., Dowker, A., McLellan, R., and Szucs, D. (2019), Understanding Mathematics Anxiety: Investigating the experiences of UK primary and secondary school students. Retrieved from: repository.cam.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/1810/290514/Szucs%2041179%20-%20Main%20Public%20Output%208%20March%202019.pdf

3: The British Psychological Society. (2019), “Maths anxiety affects a third of young children”. Accessed at: bps.org.uk/news-and-policy/maths-anxiety-affects-third-young-children

4: Nardi E. and Steward, S. (2003) Is Mathematics T.I.R.E.D? A Profile of Quiet Disaffection in the Secondary Mathematics Classroom, in British Educational Research Journal, Vol. 29, No. 3, 2003, 346–367.

5: Case study from Rob Brown, Maths Teacher at West Lakes Academy, Cumbria.Pearson (2019). Guide to Tackling Maths Anxiety. Available at:go.pearson.com/tacklingmathsanxiety 

6: Pearson (2019). A Guide to Tackling Maths Anxiety. Available at: go.pearson.com/tacklingmathsanxiety

7: Lugalia, M. et al. (2013), The Role of ICT in developing mathematical resilience in learners. Retrieved from: researchgate.net/publication/262950745_ Lugalia_M_Johnston-Wilder_S_and_Goodall_J_2013_The_Role_of_ICT_in_developing_mathematical_resilience_in_ students_INTED_2013


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