Overcoming the Fear of Math and Working for Success


Math anxiety” is a problem that many students experience, especially when they are given Thinking, Communication and Application – based questions. These questions are always different and it’s no longer about memorization, but instead, if the student actually understands the math concepts they have learned.

When students experience anxiety, they are no longer able to perform, and instead, their minds are in survival mode. The fear they experience overtakes any chance of them learning, leading to lower achievement.

When analyzing data collected from the Grade 9 EQAO Exam across various schools, it is evident that many schools are performing below a level 3 which is not even up to provincial standards. Many school boards have math initiatives and are constantly working on developing strategies to address this rising need in math, however math anxiety continues to grow.

What are some causes of math anxiety?

  • Timed Tests – each student is different and the time it takes them to process questions and come up with answers will vary. However when there is a test in class, there is usually a set time limit, unless the student has an IEP with the assessment accommodation of double time. So, after having unlimited time at home to complete work and make mistakes, when students are placed under a time restraint, they get anxious.
  • Unable to Make Connections – when math is taught, many students struggle to see the relevance of the material to their lives of how to apply what they learn. With this mindset, they disconnect from the lessons because they see no purpose, and when they eventually get to it, realize that there are gaps and that they are struggling. This leads students to develop math anxiety.
  • Learning Styles Not Being Acknowledged – many educators, when teaching math follow a traditional model where they may demonstrate to students how to complete a question, and then have students work through practice questions on their own to establish these skills. However, if there are learners in the room who struggle to understand the math concept through this repetitive method, then they are at a disadvantage. They may not fully grasp the concept and once it comes time for them to demonstrate their understanding, they freeze and experience anxiety.
  • Embarrassment of Public Humiliation – within math, since there is usually one correct answer, many students who feel like they may not have a grasp of the concept may fear making a mistake in front of the whole class if they are asked to share their answer. This lack of participation leads to a disengaging classroom and further distance from the teacher and students. The fear of making a mistake publicly in math also contributes to the development of math anxiety.
  • Being Taught the Steps But Not the Concepts – many students experience heightened levels of math anxiety when they encounter questions that are out of the norm – usually thinking, communication and certainly application based. This is because it is easier to teach the steps to completing a math problem, however, a deeper understanding of the concept is lost. When taken out of their comfort zone and asked to apply the math they learned into different contexts, students freeze and develop anxiety.

Does my child have math anxiety?

Although many students experience math anxiety, they might not be fully aware of it, or truly understand what they are going through. Listed below are some symptoms of math anxiety:

  • Avoidance of Math – when many students encounter math questions that they find challenging, they may avoid math altogether so as to minimize the risk of failing.
  • Feelings of Inadequacy and Negative Self-Talk – after encountering many math questions where they have not been able to complete the work or repeatedly make mistakes, students will start to feel inadequate in math or even develop negative self-talk where they tell themselves that they are bad at math.
  • Inability to Retain Information During a Test – when in a moment of anxiety, especially during a test which may be timed or in a formal setting, students will not be able to remember what they studied.
  • Overall Dislike of Math – this is especially common when we hear students state that “math is not their thing” or they prefer other subjects over math. These statements are not healthy since math is a part of our everyday lives and unfortunately the student has not been able to make the connections to recognize it’s relevance.

What are some strategies to overcome math anxiety?

  • Talk to the Child – this is a step many adult forget about. Our students, whatever their age may be, are people with distinct experiences. We need to listen to them, establish safe spaces and have open conversations about how they feel when it comes to math.
  • Develop a Growth Mindset – this is one of the best ways (which is why it’s in our philosophy at Step Up Academy) to show students that even though they may be having a hard time now with a math concept, it is not the end. With some hard work and support, they WILL see results. And then, when students start seeing an improvement, it is important for the adult to praise the child’s hard work and ability to succeed rather that telling the child that they are smart or are now good at math – which leads them to think that the no longer need to work hard.
  • Ensure That the Student Has the Proper Foundational Knowledge – in many cases, when a student is struggling with a math question, it may be because they do not remember or were not taught the foundational concepts. When a student moves on to Grade 5 math with a 70% overall in Grade 4 math, the 30% gap holds the various concepts the student was not able to grasp. Therefore, when they move on to the next grade with this gap, there will be challenges and the potential for this gap to grow. So, when a child is struggling with math, it is important to take a step back, and look at the bigger picture to see where the challenges are coming from and if, there may be some prior learning that needs to take place before even completing the question on hard.
  • Practice, Practice, Practice, and Scaffold!math is a discipline that requires a lot of practice. In many cases, even if a student understood a concept when taught in class, if they don’t practice the work, then they will not be able to master it. Additionally, the practice needs to be effectively scaffolded so that students are not repeatedly answering the same kind of question, but rather building up in complexity. This way, students feel like they are learning, they are continually challenged and engaged. The quality of the work is MUCH more important than the quantity in most cases.
  • Devise Some Anxiety Coping Strategies – despite all the practice and preparation that has gone in to a math test or project, the student may still experience some anxiety. Therefore, we need to teach students some strategies to use when they realize they are experiencing anxiety, or even before the anxiety begins. Some strategies include: deep breathing, positive self-talk, working in an alternate room and receiving accommodations for extra time. These strategies will differ based on the student and their individual needs.

Math anxiety and it’s prevalence in our schools is evident as many students struggle to achieve at the least, up to provincial standards. At Step Up Academy of Learning, we are very much aware of this struggle, especially since we are also teachers who see this challenge play out in our classrooms and schools every day.

Math tutoring and a sound mathematical foundation, as well as establishing safe, welcoming and open classrooms are some of our approaches to addressing math anxiety. Additionally, we need to equip our learners with strategies to overcome math anxiety if and when they encounter it. These are important conversations to have as we work towards more positive mental health and acceptance.