Overcoming Maths Anxiety


It can cripple a child’s capacity to do maths and cause a lifelong fear of numbers. Maths anxiety is a well-known psychological condition, especially common among those with dyscalculia. Diana’s son Nicholas knows all about that “brain freeze” but SPELD NZ tuition is helping him “nip it in the bud”.

Diana had a gut feeling something wasn’t right from the moment Nicholas began primary school.

“I remember thinking there was something going on with numbers and counting. He wasn’t fluent. He’d be counting to 10 and would miss 5 out. His teachers thought he’d probably grow out of it.”

But Nicholas didn’t, and his anxiety around maths grew. He couldn’t retain his basic facts, and would resort to counting on his fingers. A SPELD NZ Assessment in year 4 revealed Nicholas had no maths strategies.

Nicholas began working with SPELD NZ teacher, Cathryn Bjarnesen, who introduced the family to the concept of dyscalculia – a specific learning disability related to huge struggles acquiring numerical skills. It affects around 6 percent of the population. Cathryn has a passion for neuroscience, studying it at post graduate level. She says maths anxiety is closely linked to poor achievement in maths.

“People with maths anxiety tend to avoid mathematics. They struggle to learn, as more of their brain activity is taken up by dealing with their negative emotions rather than supporting their working memory and number processing.”

“Research has shown that students with maths anxiety have higher levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, in test situations and this hormone has a negative effect on working memory and thinking processes. This becomes a self-perpetuating cycle as math anxiety leads to learning difficulties and poor achievement, which in turn fuels more fear and self-doubt,” says Cathryn.

Cathryn is helping Nicholas overcome his maths anxiety and the ‘brain freeze’ that disadvantages him further during maths tests.

“He gets very anxious and worried,” says Diana. “But Cathryn is showing him that maths isn’t scary. She’s making it fun and taking away the stress.”

Names have been changed for privacy.