Understanding the impact of Maths Anxiety on a child’s maths performance

27 June 2017

Written by Dominic Petronzi, Innovation Hub Researcher, University of Derby Online Learning

I clearly remember when the light bulb switched on in my mind. I was sat in a lecture as an undergraduate student in a module that taught a variety of topics on a weekly basis, and one of these was about maths anxiety. The more I listened, the more I could fit my own experiences to the research findings.

During my early primary school years, I too experienced negative feelings towards maths and recall a sense of dread and fear when working with numbers during maths lessons. It seemed an inexplicable and uncontrollable emotional response and a range of factors had contributed towards this. However, as a child and even into my adult years, I had always believed that I simply had a performance deficit, yet after the maths anxiety lecture, it became apparent that I had fallen foul of my own negative emotional responses. This had interfered with my cognitive performance. Essentially, my maths anxiety was an emotional rather than intellectual problem.

Research into the area of Maths Anxiety

Following this point, I endeavoured to explore whether other children in early education were experiencing similar feelings towards maths that hindered their participation and performance. I also aimed to understand what children consider as contributing to either more positive or negative maths attitudes. I therefore prepared a small piece of research for my final year project as an undergraduate student. My initial background research into the area of maths anxiety had revealed that very little research had focussed on younger children’s maths attitudes, with an obvious focus on adult populations. The research I was aiming to conduct could therefore provide a valuable contribution to the area. The first piece of research I completed provided UK children (aged 4-7 years) with an opportunity to discuss their feelings towards maths and provided very interesting findings. The research suggested that maths anxiety was acting as a determinant of achieving educational goals between the ages of four and seven and was influenced by multiple factors and experiences.

The findings of this research inspired me to progress the research as part of a PhD in Psychology. This provided me with the platform to carry out further research in the area and to make a positive contribution. Through being in an academic position, I took a philosophical approach that centred on positively contributing to children’s lives by aiming to improve the educational experiences of those at risk of maths anxiety. At the time of commencing my doctorate, I began working as a Higher Level Teaching Assistant and subsequently spent a number of years working with children from reception (age 3-4) to year eleven (age 16) and with complex difficulties. Through this experience, I learnt that children from as young as reception have thoughts and feelings on many aspects of school and life, and are capable of providing insightful information. I also encountered negative and self-critical discussions and statements in maths lessons, as well as witnessing attempts to get away from maths work. This further encouraged me to pursue the research area of maths anxiety.

The research I conducted as part of my doctorate started with hosting discussions with primary care providers to determine whether their insight reflected the attitudes of children. I was also interested in what they considered to be influential in the formation of either positive or negative maths attitudes. The information gathered from children, parents, teachers and maths experts formed the basis of an assessment scale that I subsequently developed. This was a main outcome of my doctorate research with the hope that the ‘Numeracy Apprehension Scale’ could be used within UK primary schools to support the identification of children who may be at risk of maths anxiety, enabling early intervention to be provided.

The Numeracy Apprehension Scale

The Numeracy Apprehension Scale was shown to be valid and reliable when children responded to the questions. Adding to this, the scale correlated with children’s maths performance, demonstrating that if a child scored higher for maths anxiety, their maths performance reflected this. The research had therefore been valuable and made a useful contribution to the area of maths anxiety, particularly from a UK perspective.

Development of the online Maths Anxiety course

It is for this reason that the short CPD course has been developed; to share the information and knowledge obtained through this academic research. The course aims to raise awareness of the existence of maths anxiety and to increase understanding of how it can develop and adversely affect performance. It also provides a sample of the insight that was obtained from children and primary care providers. The research I have engaged in over the past seven years has been in collaboration with other academics at the University of Derby who share a keen interest in understanding and researching maths anxiety. Forming a maths anxiety research cluster, many papers have been published on the subject area by those who have contributed to the development of this course, as well as providing consultation and key talks for institutions. The combined input to this short course ensures that learners are obtaining relevant and important detail about maths anxiety from area experts.

If you would like to find out more about Maths Anxiety and how to recognise it, our CPD course might be of interest.

Find out more about our Understanding Maths Anxiety CPD course.

Author bio

I completed a Psychology degree at the University of Derby in 2009 and subsequently developed a keen interest in the area of mathematics anxiety. I began a Psychology PhD in 2010 which focussed on exploring and understanding when mathematics anxiety develops and what contributes towards this. My collective research focussed on children’s (aged 4-7 years) maths experiences and the first piece contributed towards my Master of Research award. As an outcome of this work, a valid and reliable assessment scale of children’s maths anxiety was developed and I obtained my Doctorate in Psychology in 2016. A number of my research papers have been accepted for publication and are currently in press.

During my time as a postgraduate student, I taught a range of undergraduate modules, including Developmental Psychology, Social Psychology and Research Methods. This provided me with the opportunity to obtain the status of Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy.

Complimenting my research area, I have previously worked in primary and secondary schools as a Higher Level Teaching Assistant and a Special Educational Needs Teaching Assistant. I worked closely with complex behaviour and supported educational development generally.