Overcoming Math Anxiety and the Fear of Math

ALI Staff | Published  January 20, 2023

Remember the first time you noticed a student's hands shake during a math test? Or that student who suddenly had to use the bathroom every time math rolled around?

That's math anxiety in action, and it's more common than you might think.

Teachers and administrators play a critical role in helping students navigate through their fears of math. This blog serves as your toolkit, offering effective strategies and fresh insights to empower your learners.

In this blog, you will learn:

  • Techniques to spot math anxiety in your students.
  • Ways to help your students overcome their fear of math.
  • Teaching approaches to prevent math anxiety from developing.
  • Together, let's tackle math anxiety head-on, transforming those nervous moments into opportunities for confidence and success.


student overwhelmed with math problem on chalkboard



When students feel stressed or anxious when having to do math, they could be experiencing math anxiety. 

Math trauma can follow a person in adulthood. It’s more than feeling a little nervous when asked to answer a math problem or having a moment of frustration when doing math homework.

These feelings transition into anxiety when a student has an emotional reaction to math, no matter what. If shouting out the answer to 3+5 as an eighth grader leads to sweaty palms, that student has math anxiety.

Ignoring math anxiety, or assuming it’s something a student will overcome as they learn more, can lead to long-standing issues.

A student can convince themselves they’re simply bad at math, even if they’re not, just because of the emotional reaction they have when confronted with math. This can lead to struggles in adulthood when it comes to doing math on a professional level and may even prevent them from careers that require math computations on a regular basis.


Understanding Math Anxiety

Math anxiety isn't just about disliking math; it's that sinking feeling some students get, turning the prospect of solving problems into a mountain of dread.

It's more than just disliking math; it's a real, often intense, emotional stress. This anxiety can make the brain freeze, turning simple calculations into overwhelming tasks.

Imagine a student standing in front of the class, frozen, unable to think clearly just because they're asked to solve a math problem. That's math anxiety.

Symptoms of math anxiety can be very different for different learners. You might have students who avoid eye contact during math lessons, hoping not to be called on.

Other students may have actual physical symptoms such as sweating or a rapid heartbeat.

Then there are those students who, despite having the skills, constantly doubt their math abilities and say they’re "just not good at math," despite having shown potential.

Why are some of your students afraid of math? It might stem from previous negative experiences with math, such as public embarrassment over a wrong answer.

Pressure from parents or educators to achieve high scores, or the abstract nature of math itself, can also contribute.

Phrases like "fear of math" and "math frustration" capture the essence of what many students face—a genuine fear that makes math seem insurmountable.


The change in STEM pedagogy

Unfortunately, the question of what causes math anxiety is very much a chicken-and-egg situation. It has been argued for years, whether the chicken or egg comes first, and the same can be said when looking at math anxiety.

Does it come before a student performs poorly in math, or does struggling in math lead to math anxiety? The answer might be different for every student.

Having trouble learning numbers can definitely play into the mix, but young students especially can feel influenced emotionally in ways that generate a fear of math, even if it wasn’t hard for them to begin with.


The Impact of Math Anxiety on Learning

The effects of math anxiety go far beyond test scores or grades.

It can impact students' overall academic achievements and self-confidence. This type of fear creates a negative feedback loop where anxiety leads to lower performance, which then further feeds into the anxiety, and so on.

It's a cycle that can have a lasting impact on students' attitudes towards learning and belief in their capabilities.

As students get older they often have to participate in more high-stakes tests and this can heighten the pressure they feel, intensifying their math anxiety and its negative effects.

Students with higher levels of math anxiety tend to perform worse in these assessments.

Beyond academic scores, math anxiety can prevent students from exploring and pursuing interests in STEM fields due to their fear of math.

By better understanding math anxiety and what it looks like in the classroom, educators can begin to break this cycle and help students overcome their fear of math.


Identifying Students with a Fear of Math

Recognizing the signs of math anxiety in your students is the first step toward helping them manage their fears.

It’s not only about spotting who's struggling with numbers or formulas; it's about noticing the subtle shifts in their behavior and attitude toward math.

A student may not always say they’re stressed about math, but their actions can speak volumes.

Look for students who:

  • Hesitate or refuse to participate in math activities.
  • Express self-doubt or negativity about their math abilities.
  • Show signs of physical discomfort like sweating or a rapid heartbeat during math work.
  • Exhibit frustration with math homework or tests beyond typical challenges.

These symptoms of math anxiety and math phobia symptoms are key indicators. Some students might become visibly upset or anxious when math comes into play.

Others might internalize their feelings, making it harder to identify that they’re struggling.

It’s important to provide a supportive environment where students feel safe and secure.

Open communication is essential, as it allows students to discuss their anxiety without fear of judgment. It will also allow you to tailor your approach to their needs.   


Symptoms of those with a fear of math 

Math anxiety can appear in children as young as six. Even before complicated math, like algebra, gets introduced, nerves can take over and impair a student’s ability to think through and solve mathematical problems.

Children experiencing this anxiety often get lower scores on math tests and assessments and don’t feel confident in their own math skills.

The problem with math trauma is that it’s sometimes hard to identify. Based on the actual physical manifestations of anxiety a student feels, you could miss it.

If that student isn’t expressing outward frustration, like an emotional outburst of some kind, or even asking for help, it is still possible to see math anxiety if you know what you’re looking for. A few more pronounced symptoms can include:

  • Trying to get out of doing math in the classroom. Do you have a student who constantly has to go to the bathroom during math time? Do you catch certain students taking more and being disruptive when it’s time to do math? These could be avoidance tactics that stem from math anxiety.

  • Students who have trouble answering math questions when called upon in class or whose math grades are significantly lower than in other subjects. Especially if they are on level or above in every other subject, this could signify that something isn’t connecting right, and a fear of math may be at the heart of the issue.

  • Negative self-expressions are harder to catch but are also a sign of math anxiety. If you hear a student say they hate math or will never be able to get a problem right or a topic figured out — this defeatist attitude can also come from math trauma.

Approaching a student to ask why they’re doing whatever it is that’s triggered you to ask about math anxiety can help confirm that they’re suffering from the issue.

Asking them what they’re afraid of or concerned about when it comes to math can also open the door for you to provide some positive and supportive feedback to help get them comfortable.


Strategies for overcoming math anxiety

Overcoming math anxiety requires a wrap-around approach, tailored to address both the emotional and educational needs of students. Using the strategies below, educators can create a supportive and engaging learning environment that reduces anxiety and, hopefully, fosters a love for math.

Build a Supportive Classroom Environment

You need to create a supportive classroom environment where students feel safe to explore, take risks, and learn from the mistakes they will inevitably make. This foundation is critical for students grappling with math anxiety. It reassures them that their value and intelligence are not defined by their ability to solve math problems.

  • Encourage a Growth Mindset: Remind students that intelligence can grow with time, effort, and perseverance.
  • Normalize Mistakes: Show that errors are a valuable part of the learning process and an opportunity for growth.
  • Peer Mentoring: Pair students with peers for mutual support, allowing them to teach and learn from each other.


Incorporate Mindfulness and Stress-Reduction Techniques

Mindfulness and stress-reduction techniques can help students manage their anxiety effectively, providing them with tools to calm their minds and focus on the task at hand.

  • Mindfulness Exercises: Implement short mindfulness sessions to help students center themselves before engaging with math.
  • Breathing Techniques: Teach deep breathing exercises to use as a quick way to reduce stress in challenging moments.


Enhancing Engagement Through Interactive Learning

Engaging students in math through interactive and collaborative methods can transform their learning experience from one of anxiety to one of curiosity and fun.

  • Math Games and Apps: Incorporate technology to make learning math an interactive and enjoyable experience.
  • Group Work and Peer Support: Foster a sense of community and support through group activities and discussions.
  • Hands-On Activities: Use tangible objects and real-life scenarios to teach math concepts, making them more relatable and understandable.


Leverage Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement can motivate students and help build their confidence in math. Recognizing their efforts and improvements, however small, reinforces their belief in their ability to overcome challenges.

  • Celebrate Small Wins: Acknowledge improvements and effort regularly, no matter how minor they may seem.
  • Feedback Loops: Offer feedback that is specific, constructive, and aimed at encouraging students to persevere.


Engage Parents in Math Learning

Parental support plays a crucial role in reinforcing the positive attitudes and practices students learn at school. By involving parents in the learning process, educators can extend the supportive environment beyond the classroom.

  • Parental Involvement: Provide parents with resources and strategies to support math learning at home.
  • Communication Channels: Maintain open communication with parents about their child's progress and strategies to support their learning.

By integrating these strategies, educators can significantly reduce math anxiety among their students, creating a more inclusive, supportive, and engaging learning environment.


Turning Math Anxiety into Math Achievement One Step at a Time

Tackling math anxiety is all about recognizing the signs early and making math class a place where every student feels supported and encouraged. This blog has given you a toolkit full of strategies for doing just that. From creating a positive classroom environment to involving parents in the process, the goal is to help students see math in a new light.

Let’s take these insights and turn math anxiety into math achievement, proving to our students that they can conquer their fears and succeed.




Which STEM subjects are of interest to you?

Ensuring your privacy is our priority. By submitting this form, you confirm that you are over the age of 18 and agree to abide by our terms and conditions and privacy policy. Accelerate Learning uses your information to contact you about our relevant content, products, and services. You can opt-out at any time.