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NFER March 2020
NFER March 2020

How to support both teachers and pupils with maths anxiety

January 23, 2020, 14:17 GMT+1
Read in 10 minutes
  • Alexandra Riley shares advice for school leaders to better understand the issue and build greater confidence and resilience among staff and pupils...
How to support both teachers and pupils with maths anxiety

You’ve heard – and probably witnessed first-hand – how maths anxiety affects pupils. But what about teachers?

While 10 per cent of 8-13-year-olds in Britain are thought to suffer from maths anxiety, less is known about its impact on teaching staff.

We sought teachers’ and leaders’ views on this in a survey as part of our mission to showcase the #PowerofMaths and it became apparent that maths anxiety is not confined to pupils alone.

The majority of primary school teachers are generalists and some, because they are not subject specialists, lack confidence when teaching maths.

This can manifest itself as avoidance (for instance, turning down the opportunity to be Maths Coordinator), a tendency to teach procedures and “tricks” rather than deep conceptual understanding, reluctance to experiment with new lesson ideas or negative comments about maths in class.

These feelings can overwhelm all teaching staff, not only class teachers. In our survey, one respondent shared how they’ve seen teaching assistants become distressed at being assigned to maths – a reaction that is not often seen in other subjects.

This highlights that maths anxiety among teachers and staff can have significant consequences on: their personal engagement with maths; their confidence as teachers and ability to support all pupils’ learning across the attainment range; and in some cases, how pupils think and feel about the subject.

At Pearson, we believe in the power of maths and want to build skills and confidence so everyone can engage with opportunities, achieve and progress throughout their lives. Our second #PowerOfMaths Roundtable brought together teachers, academics, charity and business leaders to explore maths anxiety and how to tackle it.

Here are some practical steps and tools, drawn from those discussions, to help you build greater mathematical confidence and resilience among your teachers and pupils alike.

1. Understand and identify the issue in your school

Firstly, it’s important that schools have a clear understanding of what maths anxiety is to be able to effectively identify, treat and even prevent it, as well as build greater resilience.

What is maths anxiety?

Leading academic, Sue Johnston- Wilder, explains that ‘maths anxiety can be described as a negative emotional reaction to mathematics that acts as an ‘emotional handbrake’ and holds up progress in maths’ . The severity can range from a feeling of mild tension to experiencing a strong and deep-rooted fear of maths.

Understanding maths anxiety is the first step to identifying, preventing or treating it. You could raise awareness by running focused CPD with staff or putting the definition of maths anxiety on a board in the staffroom.

How does it affect your school?

Every school is different, so leaders should seek to understand the causes and scale of the issue in their own context.

Questionnaires for staff and pupils can be useful tools to support this. Surveys could range from anonymously asking staff about their feelings towards maths, if there are any areas that particularly invoke anxiety and what could help them to build greater confidence.

Pupils could be asked to rate their own anxiety from one to ten when they are given a maths question to answer. These insights can help you to identify any patterns and inform prevention and treatment strategies, as well as open a healthy dialogue about feelings towards maths.

2. Build greater maths confidence and resilience among teachers

Teachers’ passion for a subject plays a key role in inspiring and engaging pupils, and building their confidence. However, the reverse can also be true, where anxieties or insecurities around a subject can be unknowingly displayed, relayed, and then sensed by pupils.

Therefore, developing your teachers’ confidence and resilience in maths is a vital step in embedding positive attitudes throughout the entire school.

Professional development

CPD models that include subject-specific training help teachers to gain a strong conceptual understanding of maths, as well as a good grounding in the most effective pedagogies. This in turn helps teachers to feel comfortable that they are planning and delivering lessons that will successfully develop pupils’ mathematical knowledge and skills. It is important to embed this for all teaching staff, from NQTs to experienced teachers.

A common CPD framework across the school will give all teachers equal access to this vital support and, as an added benefit, will ensure you have a consistent approach to teaching maths across the whole school. This is particularly important since being taught multiple methods by different teachers can lead to confusion and is considered one of the causes of maths anxiety among primary school pupils.

Encourage staff to use team meetings to share new learning and promote peer-to-peer lesson observation and reflection. Developing an open culture of collaboration will further enhance teachers’ pedagogical practice and confidence.

Growth mindset among teachers

You may be familiar with strategies for developing a growth mindset among your pupils but it’s also an approach everyone in your school can try – including staff.

By creating spaces where teachers can ask questions about areas of maths they have found challenging, you will show that it’s normal and acceptable for teachers to face difficulties in maths. Sharing and finding strategies, resources and solutions together, will help every teacher to grow in confidence and transmit a positive mindset around maths to their pupils.

Trusted resources

Teachers need access to the right tools to perform their jobs confidently and effectively. High-quality resources, including textbooks, teacher guides, online materials and videos, are the ultimate multi-tool for teachers.

They can outline essential subject knowledge for any given topic; provide carefully structured questions to consolidate pupils’ learning and develop their reasoning skills; guide teachers in supporting learners at every attainment level and enable them to effectively assess their pupils.

Where possible, encourage your teachers to use a coherent set of teaching and learning resources. Knowing that they have prepared using trusted resources will give them greater confidence as they plan, rehearse and deliver their lessons.

3. Change perceptions of maths: showcase the creativity and real-world relevance

A key way to help reduce the anxiety that surrounds maths among staff and pupils, is to change the way the subject is commonly perceived. Too often maths is considered ‘boring’, ‘uncreative’ or ‘unnecessary’ outside of the classroom. The subject should reflect real life and include real-world contexts to help build enthusiasm and engagement. But how?

Encourage staff to get creative

Take a whole-school approach to bringing the creative elements of maths to the fore. Give teachers the freedom to develop their teaching approaches to make the subject tangible and conjure a sense of exploration and curiosity rather than just ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers.

Mathematicians regularly work in groups to explore concepts and challenges, so encourage teachers to bring more group working into their classrooms. You could even support termly whole-school maths challenges that involve staff and pupils working in teams to solve them.

Think outside of the box when trying to showcase the vibrancy of maths within your school. Why not take inspiration from the ‘STEAM’ movement, which includes the arts alongside science, technology, engineering and maths? As part of the #HipHopEd initiative in America, urban youth communities are engaged with STEM subjects though Hip-Hop music. You can find out more about this initiative, and many other inspiring ideas from fellow school leaders and teachers, on social media.

Show maths at work in the ‘real world’

Making connections with local industries and businesses can help to showcase the real-world relevance, opportunities and careers that maths can unlock.

Whether businesses go into schools, or vice-versa, the chance to see real-life mathematicians and the subject’s practical application can help demystify maths for both pupils and teachers. Placements in industry for teachers, as well as pupils, can help to educate and enthuse adults about STEM, impacting how they discuss the subject with their pupils.

Making connections across different industries can help teachers to consciously break down the stereotypes about who is ‘good at maths’ that can lead to anxiety. You can further support this in your school by celebrating and raising the profile of diverse individuals who are breaking ceilings and excelling in STEM, from astronauts, mathematicians and engineers to amazing maths and science teachers!

These are just some of the tips we’ve explored through the Power of Maths Roundtable and Guide to Tackling Maths Anxiety.

Maths anxiety won’t be tackled overnight but teachers can play a powerful role in driving out fear from their classrooms. Supporting teachers to reframe their own thinking about maths, providing professional development, and creating a culture of collaboration and openness to new teaching practices can enable teachers to grow in maths confidence. These steps are a vital part of the journey to building greater resilience and success for both teachers and pupils.

Alexandra Riley is Senior Strategy Manager at Pearson and part of the team behind the #PowerOfMaths campaign. To read the Guide to Tackling Maths Anxiety, visit:

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