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Supporting Students with Maths Anxiety or Dyscalculia

Maths Anxiety and Dyscalculia are common phenomena for both students and adults alike, and are often the reasons behind poor performance in Maths at school and beyond. In a recent study by the British charity National Numeracy, 45% of adults in the UK scored less than three out of five on an essential numeracy test.


In this article we look in more detail about these two causes, with some guidance for support.


MATHS ANXIETY

Maths Anxiety is described by the Nuffield Foundation as “feelings of anxiety, apprehension, tension or discomfort when confronted by a maths problem”. These feelings often arise for children at school and continue into adulthood.


This is not a physical characteristic of the brain, unlike Dyscalculia, and can exist in isolation to other learning difficulties. Typical causes often include: poor past experiences with maths teachers, long absences from school, the perception of Maths as a hard or unfashionable subject, or a pupil being young in the school year. Furthermore, when we get “stuck” on a maths problem, unlike in Humanities, we often have no sense of where to start or what to do. For children who feel the pressure to perform academically this can be a stressful position to be placed in.


Reducing Maths Anxiety


Those with Maths Anxiety can still achieve in Maths, but the focus initially must be on building confidence. Engaging with the student via their interests and hobbies and playing maths-related games, such as dominoes, Connect-4, Monopoly, Snakes & Ladders will start to build an environment that is more relaxed around numbers. Once tackling problems, ongoing positive feedback will further develop confidence and promote a “can do” attitude.


Maths Anxiety can be reduced by breaking topics down into smaller parts, therefore reducing the feeling of being overwhelmed, and by introducing more fun into the learning process. Encouraging learning outside, sitting away from desks, moving around, relating Maths to daily life, and relating to numbers through play can all help change the fixed perceptions of maths, resulting in a child that is more receptive to number work.


Finally, a focus on mindfulness and expectation management for the child is key. They should be aware from the outset that there will be times when they will not know the solution to a problem and that this is a perfectly natural experience when learning the subject. Mental techniques can be introduced to ensure that the student is able to better control their emotions and are not immobilised by a problem they cannot solve. In the medium and long term, students can also build a repertoire of techniques and modes of thinking to ensure that even when they do not know how to approach a problem they are able to get something down.


DYSCALCULIA

The British Dyslexia Association defines Dyscalculia as “a specific and persistent difficulty in understanding numbers which can lead to a diverse range of difficulties with mathematics. It will be unexpected in relation to age, level of education and experience and occurs across all ages and abilities”.


Unlike Maths Anxiety, Dyscalculia is a hereditary condition and is often, (but not always) present with co-occurring difficulties, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia or ADHD for example. Prof. Brian Butterworth (Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Neuropsychology) believes it can be identified in the parietal lobe of the brain. Those with Dyscalculia can certainly still achieve in Maths, and in particular, the areas of algebra and geometry seem less affected by the condition.


How Dyscalculia Presents


Students with Dyscalculia will have no “feel” for numbers. They may, under stress, fall back on safe physical strategies, such as counting on fingers. Students can have difficulty making estimations, and adapting facts already learnt to novel situations. Whilst different to Maths Anxiety, those with dyscalculia may experience stress and anxiety as a by-product of difficulties dealing with maths, and a sense that they are falling behind their peers.


Supporting Students with Dyscalculia


The same approach used for those with Maths Anxiety can be used as a foundation to break down initial barriers around Maths. However, the most successful approach when teaching those with Dyscalculia is a multi-sensory approach. The use of physical tasks and motion, for example, can allow the student to recall mathematical facts from what they did, rather than just what they saw.


Physical resources are the key to supporting those with Dyscalculia, such as Numicon (used in Montessori schools), Dienes blocks and Unifix Cubes. By use of such physical representations, students are better able to make sense of what number five for example, looks like in many guises, whether the number is odd or even, how many lots of five it takes to make twenty, etc.


When a student can start to understand what a number looks and feels like, a more intuitive sense of numbers and Mathematics can start to develop. Until then, numbers remain abstract objects that can’t be manipulated or related to in any way. Developing “Number Sense” is key for all dyscalculics. Until core Number Sense concepts like relative scale, place value and so on have been understood and embedded, further learning in topics such as fractions, time and money will remain challenging.


Recommended Reading for those with Dyscalculia


To understand more about the science behind Dyscalculia I would recommend reading anything by Brian Butterworth, who is an Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Neuropsychology at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College, London, UK.


Other recommendations include:


  • “The Power of 2” book by David Joseph Sharp, consulted daily for five to ten minutes, or even just Monday to Friday will help to support all those who find maths challenging.

  • Steve Chinn, founder of Mark College, an award-winning school for dyslexics, has written a number of books to help greater understanding and guidance on teaching Mathematics, including “The Trouble with Maths”.

  • Ronit Bird’s “Overcoming Dyscalculia” gives a selection of activities and guidance to support those with Dyscalculia.


Suggestions for Support in a School or Learning Environment


Giving students with dyscalculia or maths anxiety one-to-one time prior to lessons can help to maintain their confidence and ensure they feel supported. Making sure they are comfortable with the building blocks required for the topic in advance of the lesson will ensure a more productive lesson for them, reducing the likelihood they will feel overwhelmed in the lesson itself.


Reducing copying from the board in the classroom is a good idea, to relieve pressure on the working memory. Items on the board can be pre-copied and pasted into exercise books. This will enable the students’ energy to be concentrated on learning and practising their maths skills.


Written by Jacqui Strubel SpLDs (PATOSS) Specialist Teacher at Flourish Teaching

Jacqui is a highly experienced specialist teacher and former SENCO who has worked in the field of SEN for over 15 years. She teaches those in primary, secondary, college and university education, as well as supporting those with dyslexia and dyscalculia in the workplace. She regularly delivers webinars online and speaks at SEN related conferences, most recently The Dysgraphia Conference 2023.


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