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Maths anxiety: How can parents help their children?

“Maths anxiety” is real. One in 10 children suffer from despair and rage when faced with the subject, according to new research from Cambridge University’s Faculty of Education and its Centre for Neuroscience. 1,700 British pupils aged eight to 13 were surveyed.

Why is it so frightening and what can parents and teachers do to make maths less intimidating?

Kayla Fuller is a digital communications coordinator at National Numeracy. She suffered from chronic maths anxiety at school. Lucy Rycroft-Smith is an academic at Cambridge Mathematics. They appeared on this week’s Woman’s Hour parenting podcast.

Here they give their 10 pieces of advice for parents to help children with maths anxiety.

Lucy Rycroft-Smith and Kayla Fuller

Kayla Fuller’s advice:

Kayla Fuller is a digital communications coordinator at National Numeracy. She suffered from chronic maths anxiety at school.

1. Stay positive about maths

“Always be positive. Try and avoid saying, ‘I always hated maths in school’, ‘I can’t do maths’, ‘you don’t need maths in everyday life’.

“Whatever your own experience is, just always try to put a positive spin on it and make sure you’re not passing on those negative attitudes to your children.”

2. Point out the maths in everyday life

“When you’re measuring ingredients for cooking, when you’re catching a bus, just make sure you’re pointing out the numbers and help them to know that numbers are everywhere and they are a big part of what we do.”

3. Praise your children for effort, rather than talent

“This helps them to understand that it’s not about how they perform, it’s not about ability, it’s about working hard and keeping going.

“That gets you to where you want to be.”

4. Stay calm

“Try and stay calm, take a deep breath when your child says, ‘can you help me with my maths homework?’ and you think, ‘oh no, absolutely not!’.

“Take a deep breath, sit down. You’re not under any time constraints or pressure, it’s not like school.

“You can sit down, take your time with them, and just work through it together.”

5. Work through it together

“Children learn far more from our own behaviours than from what we’re saying, or from us sitting down with them and knowing all the answers straight away.

“Sit down with them, admit sometimes that the question can be particularly tricky and that it’s going to take a little bit of work to do.

“But by working through it together, you’re actually teaching them so much more about the resilience it takes to do well in maths.”

Lucy Rycroft-Smith’s advice

Lucy Rycroft-Smith is an academic at Cambridge Mathematics.

6. Encourage children to talk about feelings

“Use the language about their emotional responses, and also their physical responses to things.

“So saying things like, ‘I feel sad or angry’, but moving beyond that and asking them questions: ‘how does that feel?’, ‘where in your body does it feel?’, and ‘what do you think started that response?’ and ‘what can we do about it?’

“Then you have a bit more of a framework to explore the anxious feelings that students might have about maths.”

7. Don’t be dismissive of their feelings

“When they come to you and say, ‘I feel like maths lessons are difficult at the moment’, ‘I feel panicky or angry’, or ‘I want to cry’, not to say, ’well that doesn’t matter’, or ‘that’s not real’, or ‘I think maths is easy’.

“To actually listen to what they have to say and to allow them to express those feelings in a safe way before you move on and try and solve the problem.”

8. Make time for non-traditional maths

“Make time for maths that isn’t traditional maths.

"You probably have a sense of when children have brought maths home from the classroom, which feels like homework, or something that they’ve done in class that they want to practise.

“Actually extending your definition of what maths is beyond that into something like puzzles, board games, any interesting spatial puzzles that you might want to do with your children, that allows you to have fun with maths in a slightly different way.

“It expands their definition of what maths is into something that includes positive feelings. “So then they can draw on those positive feelings when they are in maths lessons at another time.”

9. Demonstrate the behaviour you want around maths

“That’s not that we find something such a challenge that we’ll never do it, that it’s an obstacle, that it’s defeated us, but that actually, we can take some risks, we can experiment, we can try different methods, we can draw different pictures.

“At some point, you’ll make some headway and that’s what...professional mathematicians, that’s the approach they use, it’s no different.

“The idea that we’ll just try something and see what happens, works perfectly well in maths, as it does in all other creative subjects.”

10. Don’t frame maths around gender

“Really make sure you’re paying attention to the way that you’re framing maths and that it isn’t stereotypically to do with gender.

“Really thinking about the way you’re portraying mathematicians; not using ‘he’, not always assuming that somebody who is good at maths is male, and equally not assuming that someone who isn’t good at maths is female.

“Make sure you’re really tackling the gender stereotype so that students don’t immediately assume they won’t be good at maths for reasons about their identity, rather than their actual attainment.”

The Woman's Hour Parenting Podcast is released every Wednesday.

You can listen to it here or download it on the BBC Sounds app.