7 tips to help stop the spread of Maths Anxiety - written by Ollie Coach, Helen Taylor

"Help me with my maths!"

Parents all over the country are being thrown into a state of anxiety, not by what is happening with  the Covid-19 situation, but by the following five words uttered by their kids: “Help me with my maths”

Are you one of them?

Have you avoided maths since school because you were no good at it; blanked out when asked a simple sum; panicked when there was a maths test or exam; felt sick at the thought of the teacher asking you a question or had other common signs of anxiety when confronted with anything mathematical?

If so, you probably have some degree of maths anxiety, and those five words coming from the mouths of your beloved offspring are perhaps bringing those negative feelings right back into the foreground.

The Ollie model says that, in your magic library, you have a black box full of the negative memories that led you to being anxious of maths in the first place. In that box are also all the memories from the intervening years that have corroborated your belief that maths is definitely not your thing.

Now, you can’t instantly become proficient at algebra, trigonometry, the mysterious processes of long multiplication and division, or …. wait for it …. fractions and percentages, but you can learn strategies to help your children grow into confident, resilient mathematicians to the level they are capable of.

Having a parent with maths anxiety is very high up on the list of contributing factors to a child developing it themselves.

So, I am not going to give advice on what you can do to help your own maths anxiety just now, but rather offer you guidance on how not to pass it on to your children.

7 tips to help with maths anxiety

So, here are 7 ideas you might be able to put into practice next time you hear those dreaded words.

1. Instil in them the belief that they will be able to do maths if they work at it.

This means not saying things like:

•    I could never do maths either.

•    No one in our family can do maths.

•    Maybe you just don’t have a maths brain.

•    Maths is impossible unless you are a genius/nerd.

Instead say things like:

•    Of course it seems hard just now, because you haven’t practised enough yet.

•    Maybe we can find an explanation for this that suits you better.

•    Talk me through what you have done, and let’s see if we can spot the mistake.

•    How far have you got? Which ones can you do? Let’s see if we can build on that.

2. Praise the effort they are putting in at least as much as them getting the answers correct.

We want them to persevere when their maths gets a bit challenging, so it is important that they know that there is huge value in trying and sticking with a problem. If they say something is difficult, subtly change their perception by answering with something like “that does look like a challenge, where could you start?” 

3. Teach them how to calm down if they are getting stressed.

It is even harder to do maths if you are stressed or anxious, as the working memory you need for the maths problem is taken up with the stress.

If they know about Ollie’s Superpowers then you ask them to shrink anxiety and grow calm and confident.

Simple options are to talk them through a simple strategy like 7-11 breathing (as easy as it sounds, breath in for a count of 7, and out for a count of 11), or grounding themselves by spotting 4 things they can see, 3 they can hear, 2 they can touch and 1 they can smell.

If you do it together this has the added benefit of calming you down as well. Win, win.

4. Make maths part of everyday life.

Especially for younger children, do things that involve maths as much as you do reading. Involve them with money calculations, measuring ingredients when cooking, working out how many plants to buy to fill the garden tubs.

For older children, they can help with planning journeys and holidays, calculating how much paint or carpet is needed, household budgets and purchase decisions such as which car to buy, or mortgage to switch to.

5. Introduce them to fun maths.

Being anxious about maths yourself, you might avoid introducing maths activities and games to your kids. There is no need to.

Lego is fantastic and involves loads of maths, as do lots of card games. There are lots of children’s books that introduce maths in fun ways, and plenty of games you can play.

Crossword alternatives such as soduko, kakuro and futoshiki are brilliant for all ages.

Make it normal to enjoy different forms of maths.

6. Admit to not knowing how to do it rather than pretend.

This takes the pressure off you, after all no-one expects you to remember all the historical facts you once studied so why should you remember all the maths you were taught?

You can say you have forgotten, or you were probably taught a different way so can they show you what they know so far.

They are asking for your support in tackling the problems, not to give them the answers, and often just getting them to talk through what they are doing will clarify things for them.

7. Be open about your anxiety?

For older children, why not admit that you had an anxiety problem with maths at school?

Far from making you look stupid because you can’t do the maths they are trying to learn, it will help them to understand more about the sorts of anxiety issues anyone can get. They may feel more confident about talking to you about things that worry them at school or in general as you are likely to be understanding.

It also takes all the pressure off you trying to hide your lack of confidence or mathematical prowess, and more importantly it gives you a chance to undo any mistakes you may have already made. You can investigate the issue together and maybe discuss the things that led you incorrectly to believe you would never be any good.

The conversation that arises from this might highlight that they are starting to have anxiety over their maths, and you can start to correct this, or get them help to stop it becoming worse.


Helen Taylor, Ollie Coach

Helen is both an experienced maths teacher and Ollie and his Super Powers coach. She has a special interest in helping both adults and children overcome maths anxiety.  With a combination of coaching and maths tuition, children grow in skills and confidence and flourish in the maths classroom. Enhanced exam results are a bonus.

To get in contact with Helen, email Helen.taylor@ollieandhissuperpowers.com