The annual school exam season is almost upon us. Yet, many children will experience maths anxiety. But what is it, and how can parents help?
“Turn the paper over – you may begin.”
In the next few weeks, children of all ages will be sitting exams – from SATS to GCSEs and A-Levels in the UK, along with other exams worldwide. Australian children have just been sitting the NAPLAN numeracy test.
For most students, this will be a routine part of the school day (albeit less fun than running around at break or lunchtime). But for others, the prospect of doing a maths test will be completely terrifying. These students may be suffering from what many psychologists term’ maths anxiety.’
But how can we help our children if they are experiencing maths anxiety, or even ourselves if we suffer from the same condition?
What is maths anxiety?
Maths anxiety is the feeling of tension and worry that interferes with a person’s ability to solve mathematical problems. Researchers consider maths anxiety to be distinct from general anxiety or test anxiety, though it is believed there is some crossover.
Maths anxiety usually develops due to poor experiences with maths, which leads to negative thought patterns about your maths potential. These thoughts can manifest in the avoidance of maths and feelings of helplessness when confronted with tests.
Maths anxiety is a common issue for many young people and adults and can be seen in children as young as five.
What does research tell us about maths anxiety?
According to Stanford University research, as of 2012, up to 50% of adults had maths anxiety. The Victorian Department of Education in Australia suggests rates are lower, between 6% and 17%. However, the average rate in academic studies tends to be approximately 20%.
That means thousands of children will be dreading the upcoming numeracy exams, regardless of where in the world they might be.
But, what can parents do to help their anxious child achieve their best in mathematics exams or other numeracy tests? According to the Maths Education department of The University of Sydney (Australia), here are three practical things you can do right away and also in the future.
1. Focus on successes to build confidence
Most children want to be good at maths. If they are younger, they will likely understand that their teachers and parents think this is important. If they are older, they will know it is essential for future jobs and careers.
One of the critical sources of maths anxiety is despite wanting to be good at maths, students have received consistently negative feedback about their ability. This may be by comparing themselves to others or, more formally, through poor results.
To reduce anxiety, it is essential to focus on the positive, showing your child times when they have had success in maths. Experiences of success are vital in charting a course to further success in maths.
A practical way to demonstrate success is by getting the child to do an old worksheet, even as far back as two years ago. Students in years five and above could do a previous test but at a lower level. This shows them how they have progressed.
After completing the sheet, focus on areas of strength – use phrases such as “Look, you got all “the long division questions correct!” to help build confidence. This experience of success can be used as a base to tackle more complicated tasks then.
2. Avoid exam/test overload
Anxiety about tests, exams, and other assessments can be exacerbated by over-emphasizing their importance in the build-up. A more constructive approach is to reassure your child that their performance is not judged.
Currently, most schools will be working hard to prepare students for their upcoming exams, and discussions about the test are regularly taking place.
Because of this, it can be easy for children with maths anxiety to get ‘exam overload.’ At home, limiting your discussion of the upcoming tests to times when the child is doing work to prepare for it is useful.
The University of Sydney recommends trying to make the day an exciting one rather than a terrifying one. For example, you might have a special exam day breakfast on the day of the test.
3. Work alongside your child
During COVID, many families felt the strain of taking a hands-on role in their children’s education (who, likewise, did not take kindly to their parents suddenly also becoming their teachers). So parents may be tempted to leave their children alone to study or do homework. But this won’t help relieve maths anxiety.
A more beneficial approach is for parents to study alongside younger children, and show interest in the work older children are completing. Teenagers may not be open to help when you offer up your own time but make it clear that you are there if they need you and you aren’t seeking to judge them.
This approach shows the child their parent is engaged with their work and positive about their ability to learn.
It cannot be underestimated how much a parent’s approach to learning maths influences their child’s approach. Try and have positive conversations with your child about maths and how we use it every day.
This can help dispel negative attitudes, such as children thinking, “This is too hard and is just something I need to do at school.” You might want to use maths to work through everyday problems such as a supposed ‘bargain’ at the supermarket or use length and area to determine how to arrange the furniture around a room.
As the test day nears, families should not have to stress out about the exams. Preparation focused on celebrating successes and positive experiences can encourage pupils and students to simply do their best.
What are your thoughts on the contents of this article? Do you find the suggested help points useful? Tell us more in the comments.