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Home-schooling during lockdown: top tips for parents with maths anxiety

With many parents and carers faced with the challenge of teaching their children maths during the current lockdown, Dr Tom Hunt, Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Derby, discusses top tips for parents on how to ensure they are supporting their children’s maths learning without the stress.


By Tom Hunt - 1 May 2020

Parents and carers are not alone in experiencing stress when aiding their child with maths learning at home. What could be a brief, enjoyable, even satisfying experience, can often quickly turn into a heated debate between adult and child.

The current lockdown has left many parents and carers wondering what the best course of action is to support their children’s maths learning. Several questions will have arisen. What can I do to ensure my child doesn’t fall behind? What can I do to ensure my child doesn’t forget what they have already learned? What if I don’t know enough maths? How much work should my child be doing?

What is maths anxiety?

Many people will say there is just something about maths that creates anxiety. Maths anxiety comprises the negative cognitive, behavioural and emotional response that some people experience in response to maths.

This may manifest itself in a range of ways, such as generally avoiding anything maths-related, having worrisome thoughts about maths and your maths ability, or even feeling panicky. There are several reasons why people are ‘maths anxious’ and these often point towards early negative experiences. For instance, maths anxious adults will often recall, in some detail, a mean maths teacher who showed little compassion and would even humiliate them in front of the class.

Even people who have “done well in maths” can experience maths anxiety. This is particularly the case when faced with the kind of maths that taps into the same cognitive resources used up by worry. Maths anxiety can stay with a person for a long time and the prospect of supporting a child with maths learning can bring up all sorts of negative memories and feelings. Research findings have shown that parents and carers who experience maths anxiety are more likely to pass that anxiety on to their children if they help with maths homework.

This can place them in a tricky position; they may be aware of their own anxiety around maths and, because of this, they want to support their children to ensure they don’t go on to experience the same kind of anxiety. Yet, perhaps inadvertently, such anxieties can transfer to their children. Does this then mean they simply shouldn’t support maths learning at home? There isn’t a simple answer. However, there is some evidence to suggest that being mindful of one’s emotions, language and body language can be helpful. Here I present a few pointers that may help.

Top tips to combat maths anxiety

1) Don’t panic. The first thing to say is try not to dwell on such questions as to whether your child is doing enough work or if they will fall behind. Bear in mind that, irrespective of the lockdown, schools vary greatly in their policies concerning homework. Some schools are of the opinion that “school work” should not impede family time, whereas others are quite specific in their recommendations, suggesting children engage in a certain number of minutes of maths work at home each day.

This variation often adds to the uncertainty parents and carers feel when it comes to “doing the right thing”. It is likely that schools will vary in their advice just as much during lockdown as before it. For this reason, try not to compare the maths work your child is doing with children from other schools, or even children from the same school. Social media posts from “helpful” parents depicting “maths at home” can often have the reverse effect, adding to the low self-efficacy and worry already being experienced by parents and carers. Be mindful that teachers will be planning the most appropriate strategy to support your child’s maths learning upon returning to school.

2) Use technology to help – or don’t. Many schools will have been proactive in giving information on what maths work children can do at home. For most, this will involve logging into an online portal. Many parents and carers will be highly familiar with this, others will have some familiarity but feel the need to rapidly get up-to-speed, and some will feel the sudden need to understand what it is all about. Remember that children themselves will be surprisingly savvy when it comes to online technology, so don’t feel like you have to learn the system on your own; children quite like the opportunity to demonstrate how it works. On the same note, don’t feel you have to get drawn into online learning as the only way to support your child.

3) Be mindful of dangerous messages. I have seen several poems and songs posted on social media that reinforce dangerous stereotypes concerning gender and maths. Worryingly, these are targeted at children (and have received thousands of likes and shares). For instance, messages that suggest maths is hard. Those who are maths anxious are already more likely to believe that maths is difficult or even beyond them. Unnecessary reference to maths being a difficult subject only serves to create a barrier in maths learning. Similarly, I have heard the reference of “mums are doing the washing while dads are helping with maths”. Research has shown that people can hold the belief that maths is a “boys’ subject”. The widespread publication of such messages is damaging to girls’ attitudes and self-beliefs and parents and carers should take note of the content of social posts before readily liking or sharing.

4) Model positive attitudes and behaviour. Avoid getting frustrated (either with the maths or your child’s response to it) and try to reinforce successful engagement with maths learning rather than simply rewarding completion of a task. Such rewards might be a smile, a high-five or a hug; these can even be open signs of gratitude if your child is able to explain a maths problem/solution to you. Many parents and carers will say that getting children to simply start maths work is the most challenging thing. Maybe begin by doing some maths yourself, perhaps progressing on to your child doing some very simple maths – they don’t need to launch straight into something new each time.

Be creative and open about the relevance of maths to real life. At a conceptual level, you can state how slicing a cake is fractions, how taking a free kick is angles, how rolling dice is probability, and how rearranging bedroom furniture is shape and measurement. You don’t always need to know the specific calculations involved, but emphasising the relevance of maths in this way can create those light-bulb moments that make all the difference.

The overriding message is that you don’t need to worry that your child will “fall behind”. Don’t think of yourself as having to take on the role of the school teacher. Take care not to reinforce negative maths attitudes and try to integrate maths learning into everyday tasks.

About the author

Tom Hunt
Senior Lecturer in Psychology

I am a lecturer and researcher in psychology, with a specific interest in maths anxiety: the causes, consequences, and what we can do to reduce it. I work directly with teachers and students to support pedagogical practices and enable people to reach their potential, not allowing anxiety to get in the way.