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Math Anxiety in Children

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Oct 3, 2022.

What is math anxiety?

Math anxiety is a feeling of tension or discomfort when your child thinks about or works on math. Your child may have mild anxiety that happens at certain times, such as before a timed test. He or she may have severe anxiety any time he or she has to do math.

What increases my child's risk for math anxiety?

Your child may have an anxiety disorder that makes him or her worry about how he or she is doing. Your child may think he or she is not good at math even if he or she has good math skills. He or she may have a learning disability that prevents him or her from being able to do math. A learning disability means your child has trouble with an academic skill even though tests show he or she is intelligent. Your child may develop math anxiety if he or she did poorly in a past math class or if he or she sees math anxiety in a parent.

What are the signs and symptoms of math anxiety?

  • Physical problems such as shortness of breath or stomach pain when thinking about or doing math
  • Feeling tired or cranky when he or she does math homework, or not wanting to fix errors
  • Missing class or arriving late, not paying attention in math class, or being disruptive
  • Not being able to answer questions in class or solve problems on the board
  • Not finishing homework, or not turning in finished homework
  • Doing math homework correctly but failing tests
  • Asking to leave the room every time he or she is about to work in a group or do a problem on the board
  • Turning pale or red, shaking, or breathing faster when he or she is called on in class or before a timed test

How is math anxiety diagnosed?

Experts may test your child's ability to do math when he or she is not timed or graded. They will also ask him or her to describe how he or she feels when he or she thinks about or works on math. Your older child may be given a questionnaire (written list of questions) about how he or she feels about math. His or her answers may show if his or her anxiety is mild or severe. The answers may also show what triggers his or her anxiety.

How is math anxiety treated?

  • Medicines can help your child feel more calm and relaxed, and decrease symptoms. Medicines are usually used along with therapy or other treatments.
  • Cognitive behavior therapy can help your child find ways to feel less anxious about math. A therapist can help your child learn to control how his or her body responds to anxiety. The therapist may also teach your child ways to relax muscles and slow breathing when he or she feels anxious.

How is math anxiety managed?

  • Math experts may work with your child. The experts will help him or her improve his or her accuracy with math. They will also give him or her more practice with math to build his or her skills and confidence. Other specialists can help him or her improve his or her ability to concentrate or to control his or her anxiety. He or she may be taught relaxation methods to use before and during a test.
  • An individualized education program (IEP) may be used through high school graduation. The IEP identifies your child's learning needs and helps teachers understand how to help him or her learn. The IEP may help your child build skills he or she will need after high school. He or she may be able to use other accommodations in college to help him or her continue to succeed. For example, he or she may be able to take tests without being timed. This may help him or her feel less anxious and focus on the math problems.

What can I do to help support my child?

  • Always encourage your child. Do not tell your child math is easy or he or she should be able to solve the problems. These types of comments may make him or her feel anxious or ashamed about having trouble. You might have had anxiety or other problems with math when you were your child's age. Try not to show anxiety because it may increase your child's anxiety.
  • Go through your child's math homework with him or her. Have your child tell you his or her thought process as he or she solves the problems, even if the answer is not correct. Do not solve the problems for your child or correct him or her when he or she makes a mistake. Give him or her a chance to correct mistakes. Be patient as he or she works through the problems. Math may be tiring for your child. Have your child take short breaks, but make sure he or she comes back and finishes.
  • Help your child reduce stress and anxiety. If your child is taught relaxation methods, have him or her do this as often as directed. For example, he or she may be taught to close his or her eyes and picture something that makes him or her happy. He or she may learn to take slow, deep breaths when he or she starts to feel anxious. It may be helpful to have your child tell you about his or her anxiety or how he or she feels when he or she has to do math.
  • Do not focus on grades. Praise improvement, such as a test your child was able to take even though he or she felt anxious. Focus on an assignment your child finished and turned in. It is okay to praise a good grade on a test or homework assignment, but do not make good grades the focus.

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) if:

  • Your child has chest pain, tightness, or heaviness that may spread to his or her shoulders, arms, jaw, neck, or back.

When should I call my child's doctor?

  • Your child has new or worsening symptoms.
  • You have questions or concerns about your child's condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your child's care. Learn about your child's health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your child's healthcare providers to decide what care you want for your child. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

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