7 strategies to help defeat children’s fear of maths

Child completing maths paper
What does it mean if your child has a fear of maths, and what can you do to help them get over it? TheSchoolRun offers a step-by-step plan to help you boost your child's confidence – and your own.
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If the thought of maths lessons at school conjures up fear and dread in your child, you’re not alone. It’s called the fear of maths, and some children are convinced they can’t ‘do’ the subject, even if they’re perfectly mathematically capable.

Why are some kids scared of maths?

One reason could be that maths is taught in school as a judgmental subject – very often answers are a matter of black or white, yes or no. ‘Understandably, children don’t like being told they’re wrong’, says Steve Chinn, an international consultant specialising in maths difficulties and author of The Fear of Maths: How to Overcome it (£10, Souvenir Press). ‘And having to do calculations in class – often quite quickly – if they lack confidence just increases any existing anxiety. Anxiety makes the working memory less effective – children just freeze up.’

Jo Boaler, Professor of Mathematics Education at Stanford University, US, and author of The Elephant in the Classroom: Helping Children Learn and Love Maths (£12.99, Souvenir Press), agrees: ‘Unfortunately, in most schools maths is taught as a closed subject with right and wrong answers, and children are drilled that it’s just the formal methods they have to remember. But actually maths is an open, creative and flexible subject so as a parent you can try and give them a different experience at home.’

‘Hearing your child say ‘I can’t do maths, I’m just rubbish at it’, can be an early sign they might be going down the wrong path with the subject’, warns Jo. But the good news is that there’s a lot you can do as a parent to help them get over their fear – and even start to enjoy maths.

Strategy 1: Anyone can crack maths

‘People used to think that only some children have the ability to be good at maths. Despite the fact that theory’s been knocked down by research, many teachers still believe it – and it filters through to pupils,’ says Jo. ‘No wonder that many kids both fear maths and don’t want to engage with the subject.’

Strategy 2: Mistakes are good

When children think they’re going to fail at something, they usually don’t try. But recent research shows that the human brain actually grows most when you make a mistake in maths. Says Jo: ‘It’s ironic, because children feel terrible if they get something wrong in maths. But parents need to reassure kids that it’s not only good to make mistakes, but when you struggle at maths it means your brain’s developing.’

Strategy 3: Take a guess

Estimates aren’t right or wrong, so using estimation can be very confidence building – as well as a useful life skill to have. ‘A good question to ask is, “Do you think the answer you’ve just got is bigger or smaller than the proper answer?” as it encourages children to think about the values of the numbers in their maths problem,’ says Steve.

Strategy 4: Play around with numbers

In maths, the ability to play around with numbers is vital for mental arithmetic as well as real-life. It’s good to encourage children to play with numbers on paper, or with big counters in front of them. Having visual images is crucial as it reinforces the concepts in their heads. ‘There are some great simple games with dice,’ says Jo. ‘Try rolling five dice and challenging your child to make a number, 20 for example, out of the dice.’

Strategy 5: Use technology

If your child finds learning times tables almost impossible – or just really dull, a computer or smart phones can be a handy rote learning tool. Steve recommends a powerful technique called “self-voice echo”: ‘Type three facts from a times table onto the screen (for example, 5 x 8s are 40), then help your child record himself or herself reading it through in their own voice. Using headphones, they can listen to the audio over and over, while reading it aloud.’ This technique work best in short bursts of up to 10 minutes a day.

Strategy 6: Act like a maths fan (even if you’re not)

Many parents are scared of maths – particularly mums (more women than men have had bad experiences of the subject in the past). ‘Research shows that as soon as mothers comfort their daughters by saying they weren’t good at maths at school themselves, their daughter’s achievement goes down in that same term,’ says Jo. ‘So always try to greet maths homework with excitement – even if you have to use all your acting skills.’

Strategy 7: Find out more about primary maths yourself

Whether you're looking for details of what your child will learn in maths in primary school year by year, teachers' tricks to help with new mathematical concepts or everyday games to play to make maths fun, TheSchoolRun has loads of information and practical resources to help.

Look through the articles on our Maths homepage, read about today's primary-school maths terminology in our numeracy glossary, download some worksheets or choose an explanatory eBook in our Shop to help you.