Student Well-Being

Anxiety Can Make Kids Avoid Math. Here’s How They Can Talk Through the Fear

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 19, 2019 4 min read
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To increase the number of students entering math and science fields, it’s not enough for them to perform well in math. They have to enjoy it enough to make it a big part of their lives.

New research suggests anxiety can make students avoid engaging in math, even when they could gain big rewards from doing so. But a separate study also offers one simple way teachers can help math-anxious students build their confidence with the subject.

In a series of studies described in the journal Science Advances, researchers from Columbia University, the University of Chicago, and Stanford University asked nearly 500 adults to choose between attempting easy questions for a small reward for each correct answer or challenging questions for bigger correct-answer rewards, in both math and reading.

Participants who had higher levels of math anxiety before the task were as likely as anyone to choose challenging word problems, but they were significantly less likely to try difficult math questions, even for three times the reward, the researchers found. The differences remained even after researchers controlled for differences in the participants’ accuracy, suggesting that the participants favored easy math problems not because they were unable to solve difficult problems, but because they were reluctant to try. In fact, the researchers also found that the higher someone’s math anxiety, the less time he or she spent trying to answer difficult math problems at all.

This can start a cycle of anxiety and avoidance, said Sian Beilock, a co-author of the study and the president of Barnard College at Columbia.

“You could imagine it playing out in the math world that if you don’t feel like you’re good at it or you’re anxious about it, then you devalue it,” Beilock said. The more a student avoids practice and challenging himself in math, the less his skills develop and the more he struggles with future performance, which only feeds into his fear.

“Students with math anxiety often choose to take fewer math-related courses and consequently pursue fewer STEM-related occupations than their less-anxious peers,” Beilock and her colleagues concluded. “By tackling math avoidance early, we may be able to break this vicious cycle before critical academic and occupational choices are made.”

The findings come as educators and policy makers work—so far with mixed success—to increase the number of girls, students of color, and low-income students entering math and science careers.

U.S. girls and low-income students are significantly less confident about their ability to apply math, and at higher risk of math anxiety, than boys and wealthier students. Even as girls in this country closed the math achievement gap with boys in the PISA from 2003 to 2018, their lack of confidence, compared with boys, didn’t change significantly; in fact, in the most recent PISA, only 1 in 10 top-performing girls in math said she wanted to go into a STEM field, compared with 3 in 10 boys.

Prior studies suggest math instruction that focuses on memorizing processes and answering quickly can heighten anxiety. “You know, there are many ways to do a math problem,” Beilock said. “And if [math is] being taught in a way where you’re not able to pull any of that creative joy out of it, that makes you kind of step away.”

A separate study of Dutch children out this week in the journal Child Development suggests that teachers may help students gain confidence in math by helping them focus on their own goals for effort, not math ability.

Researchers asked more than 200 students in grades 4 to 6 about how competent they felt in math. A few days later, all took the first half of a standardized math test, and then were randomly assigned to do nothing or to participate in one of two “self-talk” exercises. One focused on their math ability—such as repeating, “I am very good at this!"—while the second group focused on their effort in math, saying, “I will do my very best!” After the interventions, all three groups took the second part of the math test.

There were no significant differences on the first and second halves of the test for students in the control group and those who engaged in talk about their abilities. But students who coached themselves on effort improved afterward.

In particular, “our study found that the math performance of children with low self-confidence benefits when they tell themselves that they will make an effort,” said Eddie Brummelman, a co-author of the study and assistant professor of child development at the University of Amsterdam, in a statement. “Self-talk about effort is the key.”

This self-talk could be doing two things. The focus on effort could encourage a math-anxious student to think about math skill as something that can be improved through practice and effort—a concept called a “growth mindset,” which has been associated with lower anxiety and greater perseverance in the face of difficulty. It’s also possible that promising yourself out loud that you will try your best could help students counter the urge to avoid putting forth effort when they feel uncomfortable or uncertain in a subject.

Each of the studies looks at a relatively small population, but they do offer interesting paths for helping students who experience math anxiety.

Photo Source: Getty


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Do you have a question about education research, or just want to know what the evidence says about that pesky instructional problem? Let me know! Drop me a line at ssparks@epe.org, or

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.


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