The negative link between maths anxiety and maths achievement is well documented across high-income countries, and new research points to a similar relationship in low-income contexts. This global concern needs to be tackled with early interventions for students, and teacher support. Such actions should reduce maths anxiety and improve maths performance.
How often do you hear maths described as “amazing”? Given the prevalence of maths anxiety, perhaps very rarely. But that’s the word Lindsey Richland used when I asked her about a new research paper she co-authored on maths anxiety in a low-income country. “Mathematics is an amazing system for explaining the world, allowing for creative thinking, problem solving, and making arguments.” Unfortunately, as Richland went on to tell me, many of us see maths as a series of abstract rules to learn, with the ever-present possibility of getting an answer wrong.
“Mathematics is an amazing system for explaining the world, allowing for creative thinking, problem solving, and making arguments.”
While maths anxiety is a concern in its own right, the link between maths anxiety and academic maths achievement is particularly worrying. Those who have higher maths anxiety tend to perform more poorly in maths. It is likely that poor performance increases anxiety, while anxiety impairs performance – Richland described this as a “self-perpetuating cycle”. Previous research into this relationship has typically been carried out in countries that are “WEIRD”, which stands for Western, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic. But Richland and her colleagues replicated this finding in 6- to 15-year-olds in a new context, the highly diverse and low resourced country Belize.
I asked Emma Naslund-Hadley, one of Richland’s co-authors, to tell me about their findings. “The main conclusion of our study is that these negative relationships are present also in a low-income country context. We also identify a small but significant direct relationship between teachers’ math anxiety and their students’ math anxiety.”
This second finding, Naslund-Hadley told me, suggests that in this low-income region with low maths achievement, there may be transmission of anxiety from teachers to students. “This could make the challenge of improving achievement more difficult if not addressed.”
How can we foster a love of maths in students?
The belief that some people are ‘just not maths people’ is pervasive, even occurring in teachers, and “can cause a child to simply give up”, Richland told me. So how can we help students develop a more positive relationship with maths? I asked Richland and Naslund-Hadley what the most promising solutions were. “Maths anxiety evolves over time”, Naslund-Hadley told me. “This suggests that we should intervene early to ensure the development of basic math skills, but also to help the child associate mathematics with joy from an early age.” Richland pointed to mindfulness, deep breathing, expressive writing, and re-appraisal of emotions (viewing worries as positive motivation) as potential interventions for both teachers and students. They told me that much more research was needed, but integrative approaches that focus on supporting teachers and learners might be ideal.
“We should intervene early to ensure the development of basic math skills, but also to help the child associate mathematics with joy from an early age.”
There is likely also a role for parents in interventions, as parents’ attitudes can impact on children’s maths anxiety and performance. According to Naslund-Hadley, there is a need for further investigation here, with many questions still unanswered: “How do parental mindsets and pressures for academic achievement influence the development of mathematics anxiety in children? What parental interventions work to instil positive mathematics attitudes in their children in a low-income national context?”
Interventions that tackle maths anxiety have the potential to improve attitudes, emotions, and achievement in maths worldwide. If successful, we might all find a way to think of maths as the amazing system it is – and to use the concepts and skills involved to our advantage. An integrative approach, that starts early and supports teachers, students, and even parents, may help children to foster a genuine love of maths. After all, as Naslund-Hadley told me, “children are not born with a fear of mathematics”.
Lindsey Richland is a psychologist whose research centres on children’s thinking and learning, with a particular focus on learning in the context of mathematics. She is an Associate Professor of Education at the University of California, Irvine.
Emma Näslund-Hadley is a Lead Education Specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), whose research spans pre-primary through secondary education, focusing on discovering learning processes in the classroom that promote children’s development of conceptual, generalizable knowledge in mathematics and science.
The study ‘Teacher and Students’ Mathematics Anxiety and Achievement in a Low‐Income National Context‘ was funded by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and conducted in collaboration with the Ministry of Education of Belize.