Helping Maths Anxiety

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I blogged the other day about my self-revelation that Betsy has probably been suffering from maths anxiety for her whole school life; I did make a basic parent error of not checking with her before posting and I’m not sure that she is completely ok with me, not only diagnosing her as having Maths problems, but telling the world. I did try to reassure her that I’d pointed out she had been successful (she passed her IGCSE), and that as she was my only consistent blog reader anyway, (woe is me), no one else would probably see it, but I am still not sure it was my smartest move! A wise ‘new blogger’ would learn from this and move to less personal topics to explore. Wisdom has never been my strong point though! I figure that having raised the problem of maths anxiety (though that was actually Jenni Murray’s fault for podcasting about it) I now need to focus on exploring the solutions.

Helping with Maths Problems

I’ve got a feeling this may be a further moment of shame as my quick fix to maths anxiety is a little controversial. Let me justify myself before I confess all…
Over the years I’ve tried to help both my girls with their ‘home-learning’ (a.k.a. homework to anyone who has been on this earth longer than millennial status).  I’ve built, I mean supervised… no I mean built, models from cardboard, completed extravagent rubric-led projects, filled in learning-scrapbooks, created posters, written book reviews galore; I’ve taken the class teddy on ridiculous trips out, simply so that I can compete with the tiger mums in the ‘what teddy did when he came to stay book’ and coloured and cut until I can’t take any more!
Why didn’t I leave the kids to it? I guess I wanted them to hold their own and even excel in  their class presentations and completion of Maths problems in order to achieve the kudos of a job well done. I could help, so I did. (I didn’t really do the work for them – well not all of it!) and we bonded and actually had fun in the process.  That’s the key thing, it was fun and not anxiety laden. But when it comes to maths, I cannot keep the anxiety out of the helping part. Apart from anything else my own maths skills are not up to it! Maybe once upon a time, I could assist with times-tables, division and multiplication, but even there the working-out methods were not ones I was familiar with. These days, the functions and quadratic equations, that are causing concern, are way beyond my understanding!  Any attempt to help with the calculation process is guaranteed to lead to stress, conflict, tears and tantrums and the maths anxiety I am desperate to avoid. That’s my justification for what follows…

Maths Solutions to Problems

My solution is to enrol extra help. This can be either done from within the system or externally. I’ve opted primarily for external help, hence the moment of shame. I have enlisted a … TUTOR.

That might not seem so radical or such a terrible deed, but teachers (even an ex-one like me) advocating for a tutor, especially a Maths one, is a big no-no. We teachers believe that kids do not need tutors and that we give them enough support and challenge to enable the students to do well. We get very irritated at ‘tiger parents’ who insist on extra tutoring, especially when kids turn up with home-learning of a higher standard than we know they are capable of alone. We know, that in Asia, sometimes tutors are enlisted, not for those students who really need extra help, but for those whose parents want them to be ‘even better’ than the ‘excellent’ standard that they are already at. Quite frankly, we don’t approve! 

Yet, here I am traitor to my cause!

Maths Tutors Take the Strain

Betsy has a fabulous Maths tutor called John Tranter, (founder and content creator of He teaches Betsy once a week and can do all the things that I can’t and be all the things I fail to be. He is kind, encouraging, patient, can and plans tailored provision that can complement the excellent class teaching she receives. As an ex-teacher himself, he really understands the stumbling blocks preventing learning and knows how to overcome them and most significantly can calmly teach the skills for doing this. He has inside out knowledge of the exam curriculum and can devote time to creating a personalized learning programme for Betsy. Having a tutor works.

If this sounds like an ode to John, it kind of is, but it isn’t in any way denigrating the role of the teacher.  As I mentioned, the other way to enrol help, especially if cash is not available, is from within the system. Regardless of whether you enlist the extra help of a tutor it is imperative, if you have a child with maths anxiety, to take the time to get to know your child’s Maths’ teacher and share with them strategies that you know will and won’t work for your child. If s/he is shy then forcing them to solve problems at the board in front of the class obviously won’t reduce their anxiety; if the teacher thinks that your child is disengaged because they are lazy or don’t care, when you know otherwise, then it is worth sharing this with them. In my experience there are very few children (actually I can’t think of any) who do not want to do well. Where they give the appearance of that, with a supportive teacher you can get to the root of the problem. I reckon, now I know the prevalence of the existence of maths anxiety, creating a great relationship with the teacher becomes imperative.  And, whilst I’m on my soap box, I’d say do trust the teacher unless your instinct really says not to. Don’t view having a tutor as a failure on their or your child’s part, or your own and don’t worry about whether they are in an upper or lower set. After all it’s only a number, they need to be where the content is appropriately pitched. So, in brief, let the teacher and the tutor take the strain.  
Whilst, then as a teacher I am probably opposed to tutoring, (surely the kids have enough schooling during the day and why spend money on a tutor when they have lessons all day at school type arguments), as a mum I am comfortable with my stance. (My shame is no more, but  as you’ve read my self-contradictions continue.)  If, like me,  you have a child with maths anxiety then enlisting a kind and caring tutor (not a tyrant) is a great way forward. The tutor not only helps teach the actual maths, supporting the great classroom learning, s/he reduces stress levels of the whole family. I don’t think there is any point telling your kids that maths is easy when they don’t find it so, but choosing a well qualified tutor who can relate to your child is about as reassuring a thing as I can think of to do. Betsy knows first hand that John helped her to get her IGCSE and has confidence in his help for IB. That’s all I can ask for. For me, that’s worth every penny! 

One last postscript, about my angst about whether maths anxiety needs an apostrophe. The issue is resolved and it doesn’t. Maths is the adjective and anxiety is the noun, therefore we are good to go without it. If using maths as an adjectivethen a lower case m is needed, but if as a noun a capital M is needed. Guess who told me that? It wasn’t a language specialist. This does make my punctuation through my last blog post leave a bit to be desired, but the grammar police haven’t arrested me just yet! 

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