How to Help Children With Math Anxiety

Shows a young girl wearing the math bands junior

What should we do when children hate mathematics and will go to any lengths not to have to do it? In Scientist Factory, we believe that conquering math anxiety begins with a growth mindset. We also know that the only way for us to become better at mathematics is to fill existing knowledge gaps. We can’t learn equations if our knowledge of basic arithmetic is lacking.

Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Standford University, developed the idea of how our mindset affects our ability to learn. If we have a fixed mindset, we believe that intelligence is an innate and unchangeable quality. If we have a growth mindset, we believe that our intelligence can increase through our efforts. We don’t give up in the face of difficulty but try harder. But with a fixed mindset, we become terrified of failure. We are scared even to try and don’t get any better.

Mindset affects achievements

That is to say, our mindset has a significant bearing on our achievements, and it’s crucial when children are to learn mathematics. A study on nearly 250 children confirms this. The researchers measured the children’s intelligence and math and reading skills. They proceeded to map their math anxiety. Finally, they interviewed all the participants about how their attitudes towards math. The scientists then asked the children how they liked to solve challenging math problems and what they felt when they learned mathematics. The children who had a growth mindset were also the best at mathematics.

How do we give children a growth mindset?

The first thing on the agenda is to talk about the value of making mistakes. Children who hate math are also terrified of failure. Every mistake and wrong answer becomes another defeat. We have to tell them that it is necessary, and even good, to make mistakes and that they don’t have to hide their mistakes. Embrace every mistake they make as a learning opportunity.

You can say: “What a great mistake that is! What can we learn from it?”

It’s also vital to encourage effort and growth rather than saying that the child is intelligent and talented. The child has to know that the brain can grow stronger through exercise, just like our muscles. We get better with practice.

Explaining knowledge gaps

Knowledge gaps are usually the reason why some children struggle with math. Such gaps in knowledge can have large consequences because mathematics is a hierarchical subject. You can’t learn addition and multiplication if you don’t understand the decimal system. And you can’t understand the decimal number system until you have managed to connect quantities to numerals. In other words, the knowledge of one level is vital if you are to proceed to the next. The following activity is an excellent way of illustrating just this to children while you also practice cooperation:

The activity can be done in groups of 2-4 people. For each group you need:

  1. One rubber band
  2. String
  3. 30-40 plastic cups


  1. Show the students the equipment. Explain that you’re going to work in groups. Every group has to build a tower made of cups, and the goal is to build the highest tower possible. The catch is that they can’t use their hands to move the cups. They have to move them using the rubber band and string only.
  2. Give every group 4 pieces of string that measure about 20 cm, the rubber band, and cups. They will probably quickly discover that the best way of doing this is to tie the string to the rubber band so that they can stretch it around the cup. They also have to communicate and cooperate to lift the cups where they want them to go.
  3. Once they have build a tower, ask what will happen if they remove one of the cups at the bottom. Discuss and then remove a cup so that the tower collapses.
  4. Tell them that this activity illustrates something that applies to mathematics. What could that be? Discuss. Make it clear that learning mathematics is like building a tower. If we don’t learn the basics, we can’t learn the advanced. Everything collapses without the foundation. If we get such knowledge gaps in our foundation, we often think that we are stupid or lack a necessary talent for math. This is completely wrong. We just have some knowledge gaps in our math foundations, and then it’s very hard to get anything else to stick. We therefore have to find these knowledge gaps and fill them before we can move on. We do this through trial and error, and learning from our errors. All children can excel at math with this method!

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