When one in three UK children feel maths anxiety by the age of six, it’s time we take a look at how we introduce children to numbers.
Growing up, struggling with maths probably felt pretty normal. If we didn’t struggle ourselves, we certainly had plenty of peers who, from early on, self-identified as “not a maths brain.” A lot of us might still feel like that.
But Judith Twani believes maths is for everyone — even though in her own early years, she certainly felt it wasn’t for her.
“I’d sit in maths lessons and want to cry, because it just felt like something wasn’t clicking in my head,” she says.
These days, Jude’s work focuses on making sure today’s little ones feel differently. She has worked in the Early Years for 18 years. She’s been an Early Years consultant for Be a Mathematician, co-authored the book Let’s Talk About Maths, and been a featured speaker at Nursery World Show in London on the subject.
I caught up with Jude on the phone to talk about where maths anxiety comes from, and how we can set children on a better path with maths. The good news is, that doesn’t have to be too tricky — we’ve already got the lessons we need all around us. It’s just a matter of noticing them.
To start beating maths anxiety, she says, we can stop focusing on getting the right answer.
What is maths anxiety?
It’s pretty straightforward, really. Maths anxiety is when calculations and numerical thinking trigger a sense of stress and worry. You can feel it at any age, but it usually starts in our early years.
When we introduce children to maths, it’s often in a rather binary, right-and-wrong manner. We quiz children on knowing their numbers and shapes, we push them to count how many apples in a basket, or if they can write their numbers.
For Jude, this isn’t the most helpful start for children. She believes the fear of being wrong can prevent children from being curious and exploratory about their numbers.
“Children start learning very early on that there are right and wrong answers. That can give the impression that you’ve really got to get it right,” Jude says. “That’s where the anxiety sets in, because it can undermine your sense of confidence, especially as you’ve just started learning.”
As we start out, the most important thing isn’t nailing every answer — it’s about exercising the creative, collaborative thinking we use for problem-solving.
Why maths anxiety matters
We lay the foundations of maths learning in the Early Years — and those first impressions are important.
In 2019, the British Psychological Society found that maths anxiety affects one third of children between four and six years old. At this age, maths anxiety bubbled up in simple problem-solving: Children felt stressed and intimidated by basic number problems.
By the time children reach primary school, maths anxiety already creates an ability gap. A study from this summer presented six-year-olds in the UK and Italy with some basic but unfamiliar maths problems, to see how they responded. The study found that children with maths anxiety not only came into the tests with less knowledge, but they learned less from supportive tutoring.
But the problem goes beyond our exam scores. Maths anxiety can follow us into our adult lives, too. If you’ve got maths anxiety, you might feel uncomfortable drawing up a long-term personal budget, calculating the rate of interest on a loan, or interpreting the graphs and figures from a medical exam.
If we’re already seeing evidence of maths anxiety at age six, then the seeds of that anxiety must be planted even earlier — which is why we need to tackle the issue in the Early Years.
Re-thinking our idea of maths
To cut to the core of maths anxiety, we’ve got to be careful about how we introduce maths to children.
Too often, Jude says, maths exists in a vacuum. Children learn their numbers, their shapes and their colors, but miss out on a sense of why. Simple calculations or word problems can feel abstract to children, when they need to be able to tie it into other things they’re learning. Framing maths as an exploratory tool gets rid of a lot of that pressure to get everything right — which is what can put some children off.
Jude believes Early Years maths should be enabling: A way for children to learn more about what fascinates them in the world.
“It’s about allowing practitioners to see maths as a way of exploring the world, and to connect it with other areas of learning and development,” she says. “Math is the science of pattern, of cause-and-effect. How can we see patterns in nature? How might maths express itself in the arts and designs we like, or the sticks and leaves we find on our walk? Asking these questions helps children put maths into their own world.”
Presenting maths in this way shifts the focus away from a rigid emphasis on getting the right answer, and more toward open-ended, collaborative thinking. This, Jude says, is the most important foundation we can build in the Early Years.
In short, we can start by thinking of maths as a creative art. It’s a means for children to explore patterns, sequences, cause-and-effect in the world around them — and to use that knowledge to deeply explore the things they care about.
What you can do to help tackle maths anxiety
You don’t need to pull maths out of abstract problems when it’s happening all around you, naturally. It’s just a matter of pointing it out to children.
To avoid maths anxiety, here are some alternate ways Jude recommends to explore numbers with the little ones:
Notice numbers in the real world: As you teach figures to children, Jude recommends avoiding worksheets, and instead finding number routines that you already use in your classroom. How many pens go in this jar? How high do we stack the chairs? How many steps to go upstairs? This gives numbers an immediate relevance to children.
Find maths in classroom snacks: Food is one of the best ways to reach anyone’s heart. Have we got enough biscuits for everyone? Have we got enough apples? What could we do to make sure we have enough? Questions like these get children thinking about addition, subtraction and division — and motivates them with a treat.
Sing a song of numbers: The rhythms, rhymes and patterns of song are rooted in mathematical thinking, and many children’s songs directly practice counting. As Jude explains, this is another easy way to build maths skills, without it feeling like a maths lesson.
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