A recently published study by Sarah Buckley on mathematics anxiety indicates that it is a very real phenomenon and may affect around 20% of Australia’s population. In a typical classroom then, around 6 kids feel anxious on a daily basis when faced with the study of mathematics.

From my years of teaching mathematics to students aged from 12 to 18 years, I would estimate that the proportion of students experiencing real stress is at least 20%. As such I have seen my role as primarily being about building the confidence of whole classes so that they are ready and receptive to working with the curriculum.

Last year I taught a girl in Year 8 who had just started at a big boarding school in Perth after living in remote Western Australia. The anxiety she was experiencing from this major change in lifestyle was obvious, but she was coping very well. But in my maths class, as the gaps in her knowledge became more obvious to her and as her test results never managed to scrape past 40%, her confidence plummeted. I encouraged her to come and see me before school and she struggled to hold back the tears of frustration. I simply let her know that I was here for her, that I would help her improve her skills and understanding, and to trust that together we’d have the situation turned around by the end of first semester.

At first whenever I approached her desk during the normal course of my classroom interaction you could see the alarmed look in her eyes; real fear that I would ask her something that she couldn’t answer. I’d let her know that her working out looked great and I’d help her through some of the problems in her thinking, without asking her to answer anything verbally. One day I slipped her one of those exercise books with the multiplication tables on the back, back cover facing up, so that she could access her tables discreetly while focusing on the new skills we were learning.

Soon enough she was raising her hand to ask for help. She was also seeking help from the boarding house tutors and she came to me for extra assistance before assessments. I don’t think I have ever seen anyone of her age work so hard. I believe she dedicated so much effort because she trusted that together we would get her through it.

I remember the first time I handed back a test and she had scored 64%. The average for the year group was only around 58%, so this was a significant achievement. The look on her face was total disbelief and absolute joy all mixed into one. Despite having a school rule that no phones are to be used during the school day, she must have contacted her mum immediately after the lesson because I soon received an email from a very happy mother.

This one test didn’t alleviate her anxiety altogether. I think she thought it was a fluke of sorts. As we moved on to a new topic of work, covering a lot of unfamiliar material, her anxiety surfaced again, but not as badly as before. We took it one day, one lesson, one question at a time, and slowly she built up enough proof for herself that she was a capable mathematics student who could think mathematically.

I will remember this student always. She was one of those genuine, conscientious, intelligent and likable students who make the most frustrating classes worthwhile. I will also remember her because she so successfully won the battle against her anxiety.

Conquering maths anxiety is a process. The best path through the anxiety is if the sufferer knows they have a capable and confident partner who will work with them on their skills and understanding and will help them prepare to demonstrate their knowledge during assessments. Ideally this partner is the teacher, but unfortunately this is not always the case. Instead, if a child can have at least one parent as a partner throughout their mathematics education, then anxiety about maths can be minimised or perhaps avoided entirely.

I so strongly believe in developing mathematically confident children that I’ve taken time away from the classroom this year to help parents develop their own confidence and abilities as partners in their children’s education. Maths anxiety is real, but it can be conquered.

Photo credit: Mitchio / Foter.com / CC BY-NC