Math Anxiety: 7 Steps To Conquer It


When new concepts don’t add up and math anxiety sets in, students are stressed and parents often feel overwhelmed

It’s something Educational Connections’ Coach Amanda McGill sees often. McGill recently started working with a 5th grader named Sofia who was struggling with fractions, decimals, and multiplication. 

“The anxiety would just shut her down,” explained McGill. “She was just throwing numbers on the paper and guessing in hopes that something might stick.” 

Just one month into their one-on-one math sessions, Sofia now enjoys the challenge of figuring out problems. 

“She had a math test this week and the teacher let me know that she got 100% and her confidence is so much better,” explained McGill. “She is very proud of her accomplishments.”

What is math anxiety?

How do you feel reading through this list of concepts?

math anxiety notebook
  • Pythagorean Theorem
  • Order of Operations
  • Multivariable Algebraic Equations
  • Distributive Property
  • Factoring

Do these words make your heart flutter with excitement? Or do you feel panic and dread?

If the answer is the former, consider yourself lucky, because math is probably "your thing."

If it's the latter, then don't worry... you're not alone. Because math anxiety is a real problem for both students, and even adults later on in life.

As a teacher, I had many students over the years with a natural knack for numbers. I also taught many that had hardly any “math sense.”

These students could often tackle rote math problems, but throw in a few complicated word problems and they’d feel overwhelmed.

My experience has taught me that apprehension about math and all the physical effects that go along with it (elevated heart rate, queasy stomach, inability to focus) are very real. I’ve seen it in students I’ve taught in the classroom and those that I’ve tutored.

And I’ve always wondered what causes such uneasiness in the first place. So in this post, we’ll dive into what math anxiety really is, its most common causes, and how you (as a parent) can help your student.

How math anxiety affects the brain

Let's first take a look at how our brains process information.

When students solve problems the information first flows through the amygdala, the part of the brain known as the "emotion center." It's only then, after about a millisecond, that the information is transmitted into the prefrontal cortex, where critical thinking and reasoning occur.

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This is important in the case of math anxiety because the amygdala is the "filter" that the information goes through first before it gets processed by the analytical part of the brain. And when math is perceived as a "threat," the amygdala in students, who feel this way, becomes overactive. This leads to the prefrontal cortex being underutilized.

In fact, an individual with math anxiety does not just dislike the subject, he or she feels actual negative emotions when it comes to performing activities that involve numerical or math skills.

And according to a recent study of college students, the sheer suggestion of a math examination triggered a stress response in students with math anxiety, actually cutting off the working memory necessary to solve those same problems.

Researchers say genetics and mindset are to blame

A study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry reveals that this common problem is actually two-fold.

First, students who have significant difficulty in math come by it genetically. Researchers followed 216 identical twins and 298 same-sex fraternal twins over seven years. They found:

  • Genetic factors related to general anxiety and math cognition accounted for 40% of the variance in math anxiety.
  • The other 60% of variance was explained by environmental factors, including negative experiences with math at an early age and learned behaviors.

Teachers and parents can even pass down their negative attitudes and own anxiety over math. A lot of anxiety surrounding the subject actually comes from classrooms that do not establish or promote a growth mindset. Students with a growth mindset focus on effort and true learning instead of test scores and correct answers.

So ironically, to explain the cause behind anxiety towards math, what we have is actually... well... a math problem:


How to help your child conquer math anxiety

Keep in mind that every child has their strengths and weaknesses, and some students may simply struggle in math even if they don't have anxiety. There are steps you can take as a parent to help your child improve in math and achieve the level of competence they need to succeed in school.

Step 1: Understand that your child is not lazy or unmotivated

Realize that motivation will wane in a subject that is naturally difficult. It makes sense that when a task is hard, humans will naturally avoid it. That’s why poor math students will procrastinate when it comes to homework or avoid it totally.

math anxiety image 3

Studying for math tests will never be at the top of the “to do” list if your child struggles with it. Simply having the understanding that your child isn’t lazy or unmotivated is important, because you can then start to address some of the underlying causes.

Step 2: Realize that math is 100% cumulative

Aside from foreign languages, math is the one subject that’s 100% cumulative. It's among the most requested subject when parents call our office requesting a tutor. I often use the analogy of a construction worker putting up scaffolding. Without a strong foundation, the next level will not sit firmly.

Think of fractions. If you cannot find the greatest common factor with ease, you will not be able to add fractions with unlike denominators. One skill builds upon the next, and because of this, it's critical to understand that you can't simply "catch up" as you might in another subject.

Step 3: Do not delay if your child is having difficulty

Because math skills are amassed, problems rarely if ever improve without intervention. Simply telling your child to “study harder” will not make a difference. Get assistance in the form of a tutor or extra help from the teacher. If they are procrastinating and missing assignments they will begin to fall further behind. This is a huge worry because it can lead to further stress and anxiety.

A study out of Stanford University found that when third graders with math learning disabilities went through just 8 weeks of one-on-one tutoring for arithmetic, the "abnormal brain function" specific to learning math in these children (as measured by fMRI) completely disappeared, and their performance improved accordingly.

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This is all just to say: intervention can work, so take action earlier rather than later.

Step 4: Do not push advanced classes

The trend these days is for students to take advanced math classes early on. This begins with Algebra in 7th or 8th grade. This approach is a good one for many students but not for all. Those experiencing significant math anxieties may be further stymied because they feel overwhelmed and underprepared. Although your child may be capable of keeping up, don’t force advanced classes if they're not ready.

Step 5: Praise effort, not intelligence

Growing up, I had a very hard time in math. My mother used to say, “You’re just like me. I was terrible at math, too. It runs in the family.” Looking back, I know she was trying to make me feel better, but the opposite happened. I started to think that math ability was genetic and there wasn’t much I could do about it. I started to give up. 

As parents, we want to foster effort, not intelligence. Study after study shows that when teachers or parents notice effort, students start to associate hard work with progress. They are less likely to agree with the notion that math is a fixed ability (that you either have it or you don’t). That has a huge impact on their performance in school. I highly recommend Carol Dweck’s book Mindset. In it, she details how the right type of praise can motivate kids.

Step 6: Don't say: "Don't worry about it"

If you have a child who is anxious about math and exhibits test anxiety, whatever you do, do not use the words, “Don’t worry about it." I can guarantee you that your child will worry about it. It’s impossible for nervous students to turn their worry switch off on a dime.

Instead, ask your child the following questions:

  • "How are you feeling?"
  • "What exactly is stressing you out?"

Then let them air out what they're thinking about. When children are able to express their feelings, anxiety lessens, and you can then move on more readily towards solving the problem.

Step 7: Tackle "Test Anxiety" and allow the math to follow

Test anxiety in any subject increases when students sit down to take a test knowing they are not fully prepared, regardless if they have specific trouble in math. So one effective approach to the problem is to help establish a test preparation routine for any exam your child is taking, math or otherwise. Those habits will then inevitably spill over to math.

The old adage “you can’t study for math” is simply not true. The best way for a student to prepare is to make a practice test and solve the problems as if it is a real exam. This allows the student to know which problems he cannot solve and to practice accordingly. In many instances, proper preparation decreases stress on test days, which may be a big factor contributing to your child's anxiety towards math as a whole.

Take action

In the end, problems with math tend not to be simply just a “bump in the road.” And because of its cumulative nature, if not addressed and worked through, they can become chronic and significant. 

Relying on the resources from your child’s school might not be enough to tackle math anxiety, like in Sofia’s case. 

“I think a positive of the coaching is that I am able to break things down into manageable steps, do it one-on-one, and make sure she knows it is OK to say ‘I don’t understand’ no matter how many times she needs to say that,” explained McGill. 

Be aware and jump in early if you see symptoms of math anxiety starting to creep in with your own child so their self-confidence and enthusiasm for learning aren’t left behind.

If your child is struggling with math, we're always here to help!