Mathemaphobia is a ‘feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear that interferes with math performance’. In these terms, it’s easy to see why children might reveal their anxiety about the subject in their behaviour.
The word ‘maths’ is a word capable of striking fear into (some of) our hearts, both adults and children alike. When maths-phobic adults become parents, how are they supposed to help their children see the subject they dread themselves as a friend, not foe? Even for teachers, this can sometimes be a quandary which requires us, parents, to confront – and ultimately aim to overcome – our fears and insecurities.
What is mathemaphobia?
Mathemaphobia is a ‘feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear that interferes with math performance’ (Ashcraft, M.H.) In these terms, it’s easy to see why children might reveal their anxiety about the subject in their behaviour. This might manifest in them rubbishing the subject entirely as ‘not cool’, temper tantrums, or even school avoidance. In 2019, the Nuffield Foundation Report found that many students experience physical symptoms, including nausea and an increased heart rate, when tackling maths problems. While some children find maths challenging due to specific learning difficulties, including dyscalculia (approx. 5%) and ‘mathematical learning disabilities’ (approx. 25%), many of those with no recognised difficulty continue to experience maths anxiety.
Where does it come from?
No child is born with a phobia of maths, in the same way as they are not born with a fear of spiders or heights. Yet mathemaphobia is far more prevalent than fear of Literacy or Physics, although these undoubtedly exist.
They hear that “Maths is hard”.
Maths generally gets a bad press compared to many other subjects. The first time a child encounters difficulties with maths, there is a tendency for well-meaning parents or grandparents to, inadvertently, reinforce their fears. We might admit that we “hated maths too”, that it was our “worst subject at school” and tell them that “maths is hard”. We do this from a place of empathy, to make them feel less alone in their struggle, but our children may well interpret this entirely differently. If clever grown-ups who seem to know everything about the big wide world can’t do maths, how can they ever be good at it? Better that we reinforce a growth mindset and aim to assure our children that they just might not have mastered the skills that they’ll need just yet.
Mathemaphobia runs deep and is incredibly common.
In my past life as NVQ Assessor and Key Skills Tutor at my local college, I visited students in their workplaces and supported them through NVQs and Literacy & Numeracy Key Skills. All were adult learners aged 19 to 60+. Some had chosen to complete qualifications, others had felt ‘forced’ back into education by their employers. Many dreaded “going back to school” and “having to do homework”. They were terrified of having to study and sit exams all over again. They relayed horror stories about their experiences of school, experiences which had coloured their lives into adulthood. Their tangible fears made them believe it was impossible to succeed in their course of study and to pass the tests they needed to.
I sometimes see the same fear in parents who enrol their children for tuition. They tend to feel helpless when their child reaches a sticking point in their schoolwork. It’s this fear that has the potential to hold our children back and affect their life choices. Addressing children’s fears as a class teacher, before they have chance to take root, became a personal passion for me, but I quickly realised that it’s incredibly difficult to account for individual differences in a class of thirty children. The work I do now enables me to do so much more for individual children. I get to challenge any maths-based fears as soon as they come up and to help build children’s confidence in maths in ways which are meaningful and measurable. It’s more than I ever thought possible at one point in my career; the results are incredibly motivating.
Overcoming mathemaphobia together.
For those parents who dreaded maths during their school days and are now being asked to address their children’s fear of maths, feeling overwhelmed is an understandable response. Learning about mathemaphobia can be reassuring. Once we recognise it for what it is, there are so many ways that we can help our children – and ourselves while we are at it – to overcome any anxiety about maths.
Let’s talk about it…
There is a saying that ‘If you can name it, you can tame it’. Talking about our fears and worries can be scary at any age, but we can encourage our children to open up, to name their emotions, to describe how they may be feeling using pictures or written words. Talking about our fears may not spirit them away, but it does help us all to realise that our fears are not usually as bad as we might have first thought. When we approach it together, mathemaphobia is a fear that can be overcome.
Let’s put the fun back in.
If we think back to our childhoods, we might have fond memories of storytime with a parent or of family board game afternoons. One of the reasons we perhaps don’t have as many positive associations with maths is that we tend not to have as many domestic anchors like these to link it to. Maths-based family fun days, with activities from maths bingo to Tic Tac Toe, can help. For one thing, it often helps us to realise we aren’t as ‘bad at maths’ as we thought we were! There’s a whole range of games you can play, whilst enjoying quality time as a family.
Let’s not feel we are alone…
As much as teachers would love to help each child blossom, with class sizes what they generally are, there remains a limit on how much teachers can do to help with individual challenges. There are countless resources to be found online, as well as tutors like myself out there with the methods, dedication and time to give our children the tools they need to develop their confidence and achieve the results they are aiming for.
Maths is, at its most basic, a life skill. We give change, tell the time, check our wage slips all the time as adults. Taking maths-based baby steps with our children will prepare them for life and help them to realise that there is nothing to fear, no equation they can’t master.
If you would like further support with maths for your child, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stay well, stay connected, stay informed, Siobhan.