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Mathematics is a necessary skill that people use throughout their lives, such as when they travel, use money, or keep track of time. Therefore, mathematics is an important skill to learn at school. Unfortunately, many children and adults feel stressed and anxious when they have to do math. People who experience feelings of stress when faced with math-related situations may be experiencing what is called “math anxiety.” Math anxiety affects many people and is related to poor math ability in school and later during adulthood. Researchers have studied how math anxiety first appears, what is happening in the brain when people experience math anxiety, and how to best help people who are suffering with math anxiety.
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THE VILLAGE
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SCHOOL
12–13YEARS OLD
7-8
4+6=
%
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4
October 2017 | Volume 5 | Article 57 | 1
NEUROSCIENCE
Published: 17 October 2017
doi:10.3389/frym.2017.00057
kids.frontiersin.org
WHO IS AFRAID OF MATH? WHAT IS MATH
ANXIETY? AND WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT?
H. Moriah Sokolowski and Daniel Ansari*
University of Western Ontario, London, ON, Canada
Mathematics is a necessary skill that people use throughout their lives,
such as when they travel, use money, or keep track of time. Therefore,
mathematics is an important skill to learn at school. Unfortunately, many
children and adults feel stressed and anxious when they have to do math.
People who experience feelings of stress when faced with math-related
situations may be experiencing what is called “math anxiety.” Math anxiety
affects many people and is related to poor math ability in school and later
during adulthood. Researchers have studied how math anxiety first appears,
what is happening in the brain when people experience math anxiety, and
how to best help people who are suffering with math anxiety.
Have you ever felt stressed and anxious when your math teacher asks you a
question? Or when you are doing your math homework? If so, you might have
experienced what is called math anxiety. If you have experienced math anxi-
ety, you are not alone. Many people feel extremely nervous when faced with
a situation that requires them to do basic mathematics. Math anxiety is more
than just feeling nervous about doing math. Nervousness is a sensible reac-
tion to a situation that is actually scary. In contrast, anxiety might not make
sense. is means that a person may feel anxious even though he or she knows
MATH ANXIETY
The feeling of being
extremely nervous when
faced with doing basic
mathematics.
October 2017 | Volume 5 | Article 57 | 2kids.frontiersin.org
Sokolowski and Ansari What Is Math Anxiety?
that there is really no reason to feel anxious. Also, anxiety can cause physical
symptoms, such as a racing heart or sweating. Usually, people who have math
anxiety believe that they are bad at math and because of this, they do not like
math. ese feelings lead them to avoid situations in which they have to do
math. Children with math anxiety oen have poor math skills [1]. Adults with
math anxiety oen have trouble with math in their careers and everyday life
[2]. Adults with math anxiety are less likely to show interest, enter, and suc-
ceed in careers relating to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
Because math anxiety aects many people and is related to poor math skills,
it is important to understand when and how math anxiety rst appears, what
is happening in the brain when people are feeling anxious about math, and
how to best help people with math anxiety.
WHEN AND HOW DOES MATH ANXIETY FIRST
APPEAR?
Until recently, scientists and educators thought that math anxiety rst appears
when children begin to learn complicated mathematics (such as algebra). is
would mean that young children (who do not yet do complicated math) do not
experience math anxiety. However, recent research has shown that some children
as young as 6years old say that they feel anxious about math. A team of researchers
asked 154 children in grades 1 and 2 questions like, “how do you feel when tak-
ing a big test in your math class?” [3] e children had to indicate how nervous
they felt by pointing to a position on a scale, ranging from a very nervous face
on the le to a calm face on the right. (See Figure 1 for a picture of the scale.)
Aer answering these questions, the children took a math test that measured
their math abilities. ese researchers found that almost half of the children who
participated in the study said that they were at least somewhat nervous about
doing math [3]. Also, children with higher math anxiety got worse scores on the
math test. is research tells us that math anxiety and the relationship between
math anxiety and math ability develops when children are very young.
Researchers are also interested in how math anxiety develops. Although
research has shown that math anxiety and math abilities are related [1], no
study so far has been able to tell us which comes rst. In other words, we do
not know if being bad at math causes math anxiety, or if having math anxiety
makes people bad at math.
FIgUrE 1
FIGURE 1
Children used a scale that
looks like this to show
how nervous they would
feel about math-related
situations (for example, if
they were asked “how do
you feel when taking a big
test in your math class?”)
by pointing to a position
on the scale.
(This image is based on
the Children’s Math
Anxiety Questionnaire
found at http://
spatiallearning.org/media/
silc_pdfs/resources/
testsandinstruments/
tandi-new/Childrens_
Math_Anxiety_
Questionnaire.pdf.)
October 2017 | Volume 5 | Article 57 | 3kids.frontiersin.org
Sokolowski and Ansari What Is Math Anxiety?
Researchers have two ideas about how math anxiety might develop. One
idea is that children who struggle with learning numbers when they are
very young are more likely to develop math anxiety when they start going
to school. is idea has not yet been tested in children. Another idea is
that math anxiety develops in children who experience certain kinds of
social situations that inuence the child’s thoughts or feelings. is means
that the child’s emotions, opinions, or behaviors are aected by things that
other people say or do. One study that gives an example of this showed
that teachers with high math anxiety were more likely to have students
with poorer math achievement at the end of the school year [4]. is study
suggests that the way the teacher acted somehow aected the math ability
of the students. Although researchers have not yet answered the question
of what comes rst, math ability or math anxiety, there have been many
important discoveries that have given us hints about when and how math
anxiety appears.
WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THE BRAIN WHEN A
PERSON IS EXPERIENCING MATH ANXIETY?
To better understand how math anxiety develops and how to help people
who suer with it, we need to understand what is happening in brain while
a person with math anxiety is doing math. One idea is that the human brain
can only process a certain amount of information at a time. A system in
the brain that allows us to process information is called working memory.
Working memory is a part of the human memory system that allows us
to remember and think about several things at the same time. is skill is
very important for doing math. For example, if a teacher reads out a math
problem, the student must hold all numbers in his or her mind, consider
the steps needed to solve the problem, and write out the answer at the
same time. Researchers think that maybe, when people feel anxious, the
math anxiety that they feel is using up some of their working memory, so
they do not have enough working memory le to solve the math problem.
Maybe the working memory that is being used for the anxiety would have
been used for solving the math problem if those people did not feel so anx-
ious [3]. In other words, math anxiety causes students to think and worry
about how afraid they feel of math, which occupies the working memory
resources that they would otherwise use to do the math problems. is idea
that math anxiety uses working memory has been supported by research
studies. Importantly, researchers have reported that children who have a
high level of working memory do better on math tests than children with
a low level of working memory.
Researchers have also examined how hard dierent parts of the brain are
working while children with either high or low math anxiety solve challenging
math problems [5]. ese researchers asked a group of 7- to 9-year-old children
WORKING
MEMORY
A part of the memory
system that is used to
remember and hold
information in your mind
so you can use it when
doing activities.
October 2017 | Volume 5 | Article 57 | 4kids.frontiersin.org
Sokolowski and Ansari What Is Math Anxiety?
with and without math anxiety to do some math problems while they were in
a device called a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner [5]. An MRI
scanner is a machine that can be used to measure how hard each region of the
brain is working during a specic task using a tool called functional magnetic
resonance imaging (fMRI). (See Figure 2 for a picture of an MRI scanner.) is
measurement is called “brain activation.” If a brain region is working hard,
there will be more brain activation. ese researchers found that a part of the
brain called the amygdala is more activated (working harder) in children with
high math anxiety than in children with low math anxiety. Also, in children
with high math anxiety, the areas of the brain that deal with working memory
and mathematical processing (called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and
the intraparietal sulcus) are less activated (working less hard) compared with
those brain areas in children who have low math anxiety [5]. e amygdala
is a small almond-shaped structure in the lower middle part of the brain and
it is important for experiencing and processing emotions, including fear and
anxiety. e dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is a larger part of the brain located
at the very front of the brain, and it is involved in many complicated behav-
iors, such as planning and decision making. e intraparietal sulcus is a brain
region near the top of the brain that is important for mathematics and paying
attention. (See Figure 3 for a picture of where these brain regions are located.)
So, overall, this study suggests that when children solve math problems, those
children with high math anxiety activate brain regions involved in anxiety,
while those children with low math anxiety activate brain regions that are
involved with solving math problems.
HOW CAN WE HELP PEOPLE WITH MATH ANXIETY?
One of the main goals of understanding what causes math anxiety and how
math anxiety aects the brain is to nd ways to help people with math anxiety
and ultimately to prevent it from happening. Some researchers have created
MAGNETIC
RESONANCE
IMAGING (MRI)
An MRI is a machine that
uses a strong magnet to
create pictures of your
brain.
FUNCTIONAL
MAGNETIC
RESONANCE
IMAGING (FMRI)
A tool that measures
which brain regions are
activated while you
complete different
activities in an MRI
scanner, such as adding
and subtracting.
BRAIN
ACTIVATION
A measure of how hard a
region of the brain is
working during a specific
task. If a brain region is
working hard, there will be
more brain activation.
FIgUrE 2
FIGURE 2
This is a picture of an MRI
scanner.
An MRI scanner is a large
donut-shaped magnet
that often has a tunnel in
the center. The person
being studied is placed on
a comfortable table that
slides into the tunnel. The
person then stays very still
while the MRI scanner
works with a computer to
produce clear black-and-
white images of the brain.
These images can be
taken while people do
activities to show which
areas of the brain are
activated.
October 2017 | Volume 5 | Article 57 | 5kids.frontiersin.org
Sokolowski and Ansari What Is Math Anxiety?
tools to help people with math anxiety. ese tools are called interventions.
For example, researchers have made interventions based on research showing
that writing down thoughts and feelings beforehand can make people feel
less nervous when taking tests. Researchers thought that if children wrote
down their thoughts and feelings, those feelings would not occupy working
memory while the children were completing a math test. So, the researchers
did an intervention where they asked children with math anxiety to write
about their math-related worries. ese researchers found that, when students
wrote about their math-related worries, their math test scores improved [6].
A dierent group of researchers showed that if college students with math
anxiety did some breathing exercises to calm them down before a math test,
they felt more calm and their scores on the test improved [7]. Together, these
intervention studies provide scientic evidence for ways that we can help
people with math anxiety. is research is very promising because it tells us
that people with math anxiety can be helped—they are not stuck with math
anxiety for life.
CONCLUSION
Since we know that people with math anxiety face challenges in their math
classes, careers, and everyday lives, many dierent researchers have worked
to learn more about math anxiety. Researchers continue to make progress in
this area. Research on math anxiety has shown that it develops early, and that
it is related to both social situations and brain processes like working mem-
ory. Also, individuals with math anxiety show more brain activation in brain
regions involved with negative emotions, and less brain activation in brain
regions involved with mathematical thinking. Researchers have also started to
test possible interventions that seem to help individuals suering with math
anxiety. However, there is still a lot of work to be done to discover how math
anxiety rst appears, what causes only some people to have it, and how we can
help people who have math anxiety. For now, whether you are experiencing
math anxiety or not, talk to your fellow students and your teachers about math
INTERVENTION
A tool or program that is
given to people with the
goal of helping them
improve or get better at a
skill.
FIgUrE 3
FIGURE 3
This picture shows the
brain regions that are
more activated (working
harder) and the brain
regions that are less
activated (working less
hard) in individuals with
high math anxiety when
they do math problems.
October 2017 | Volume 5 | Article 57 | 6kids.frontiersin.org
Sokolowski and Ansari What Is Math Anxiety?
anxiety. It is important to have conversations about your emotional reactions
to math because this is the rst step toward helping to reduce the potentially
harmful eects of math anxiety.
REFERENCES
1. Wu, S. S., Barth, M., Amin, H., Malcarne, V., and Menon, V. 2012. Math anxiety in
second and third graders and its relation to mathematics achievement. Front.
Psychol. 3:1–11. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00162
2. Ma, X. 1999. A meta-analysis of the relationship between anxiety toward
mathematics and achievement in mathematics. J. Res. Math. Educ. 30:520–40.
doi:10.2307/749772
3. Ramirez, G., Gunderson, E. A., Levine, S. C., and Beilock, S. L. 2013. Math anxiety,
working memory, and math achievement in early elementary school. J. Cogn. Dev.
14:187–202. doi:10.1080/15248372.2012.664593
4. Beilock, S. L., Gunderson, E. A., Ramirez, G., and Levine, S. C. 2010. Female
teachers’ math anxiety affects girls’ math achievement. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci.
U.S.A. 107:1860–3. doi:10.1073/pnas.0910967107
5. Young, C. B, Wu, S. S., and Menon, V. 2012. The neurodevelopmental basis of
math anxiety. Psychol. Sci. 23:492–501. doi:10.1177/0956797611429134
6. Park, D., Ramirez, G., and Beilock, S. L. 2014. The role of expressive writing in
math anxiety. J. Exp. Psychol. Appl. 20:103–11. doi:10.1037/xap0000013
7. Brunyé, T. T., Mahoney, C. R., Giles, G. E., Rapp, D. N., Taylor, H. A., and Kanarek,
R. B. 2013. Learning to relax: evaluating four brief interventions for overcoming the
negative emotions accompanying math anxiety. Learn. Individ. Differ. 27:1–7.
doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2013.06.008
SUbmItted: 29 March 2017; Accepted: 25 September 2017;
PUblIshed onlIne: 17 October 2017.
EDITED BY: Robert T. Knight, University of California, Berkeley, United States
CItatIon: Sokolowski H.M and Ansari D (2017) Who Is Afraid of Math? What Is Math
Anxiety? And What Can You Do about It? Front. Young Minds 5:57. doi:10.3389/
frym.2017.00057
conflIct of Interest STATEMENT: The authors declare that the research was
conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be
construed as a potential conflict of interest.
CopYrIght © 2017 Sokolowski and Ansari. This is an open-access article distributed
under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution
or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are
credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted
academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply
with these terms.
October 2017 | Volume 5 | Article 57 | 7kids.frontiersin.org
Sokolowski and Ansari What Is Math Anxiety?
REVIEWED BY
THE VILLAGE CHARTER SCHOOL, 12–13 YEARS OLD
The Village Charter School serves children from kindergarten through eighth grade in
Trenton, New Jersey, and the students who reviewed this article were in class with Ms.
Brindley Dane, who is the science teacher for grades 7 and 8. The Village Charter School
strives to create a community of active learners, joining efforts with parents and fellow
educators, and the students really enjoyed learning more about their brains! In addition to
Ms. Dane’s hard work in guiding her students through the review process, this review was
also supported by Mark Eastburn of Princeton Public Schools and Dr. Sabine Kastner of the
Princeton Neuroscience Institute.
AUTHORS
H. MORIAH SOKOLOWSKI
I am a Ph.D. student at the University of Western Ontario. I am interested in how young
children learn basic number skills such as how to count, or what “3” means. I want to
understand what happens in the brain while children develop and learn math. I also want to
learn about why some children like math and do well in math, while others feel nervous
about math and find it hard. When I am not doing research, I like to sing in a choir, do yoga,
and hang out with my cat.
DA NIEL ANSARI
I am interested in how our brains process numbers and how we use them. We use numbers
all the time. I want to know how the human brain is able to know about numbers and why
some children find numbers so hard to understand. What is different about their brains and
why do some people find numbers really scary while others love to use them?
*daniel.ansari@uwo.ca
... Mathematics anxiety negatively affects students' success (Zhang, Zhao & Kong, 2019). Individuals with math anxiety are less likely to be successful in science, technology, engineering and math-related professions (Sokolowski & Ansari, 2017). For this reason, it is important to investigate the factors that may be associated with math anxiety. ...
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... For example, math anxiety is linked to an abnormal increase in brain activity in structures responsible for fear and negative emotions (right amygdala), and it is linked to reduced brain activity in structures responsible for numerical processing (posterior parietal lobe) [21]. Math anxiety is also linked to reduced activity in structures responsible for executive function (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex; intraparietal sulcus) [22,23]. In terms of learning, math anxiety might create a kind of stress that leads to lower working memory capacity and forgetting [24,25]. ...
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... The neurobiological basis of processing multiple languages, decoding written words and acquisition of reading skills have informed what are the optimal inputs and sensitive time periods that can help achieve language proficiency and literacy during schooling (Kuhl, 2011;Dehaene, 2020). In the domain of mathematics, number representation and numerical processing in the brain (Venkatraman, Ansari and Chee, 2005;Ansari, 2008;Holloway and Ansari, 2009;Dehaene, 2013;De Smedt and Grabner, 2016) and the biological basis of social maths anxiety can inform new pedagogies (Maloney, Ansari and Fugelsang, 2011;Buckley et al., 2016;Sokolowski and Ansari, 2017). ...
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Although math anxiety is associated with poor mathematical knowledge and low course grades (Ashcraft & Krause, 20074. Ashcraft , M. H. , & Krause , J. A. ( 2007 ). Working memory, math performance, and math anxiety . Psychonomic Bulletin & Review , 14 , 243 – 248 . [CrossRef], [PubMed], [Web of Science ®]View all references), research establishing a connection between math anxiety and math achievement has generally been conducted with young adults, ignoring the emergence of math anxiety in young children. In the current study, we explored whether math anxiety relates to young children's math achievement. One hundred and fifty-four first- and second-grade children (69 boys, 85 girls) were given a measure of math achievement and working memory (WM). Several days later, children's math anxiety was assessed using a newly developed scale. Paralleling work with adults (Beilock, 20088. Beilock , S. L. ( 2008 ). Math performance in stressful situations . Current Directions in Psychological Science , 17 , 339 – 343 . [CrossRef], [Web of Science ®]View all references), we found a negative relation between math anxiety and math achievement for children who were higher but not lower in WM. High-WM individuals tend to rely on WM-intensive solution strategies, and these strategies are likely disrupted when WM capacity is co-opted by math anxiety. We argue that early identification and treatment of math anxieties is important because these early anxieties may snowball and eventually lead students with the highest potential (i.e., those with higher WM) to avoid math courses and math-related career choices.
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Math anxiety is a negative emotional reaction to situations involving mathematical problem solving. Math anxiety has a detrimental impact on an individual's long-term professional success, but its neurodevelopmental origins are unknown. In a functional MRI study on 7- to 9-year-old children, we showed that math anxiety was associated with hyperactivity in right amygdala regions that are important for processing negative emotions. In addition, we found that math anxiety was associated with reduced activity in posterior parietal and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex regions involved in mathematical reasoning. Multivariate classification analysis revealed distinct multivoxel activity patterns, which were independent of overall activation levels in the right amygdala. Furthermore, effective connectivity between the amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex regions that regulate negative emotions was elevated in children with math anxiety. These effects were specific to math anxiety and unrelated to general anxiety, intelligence, working memory, or reading ability. Our study identified the neural correlates of math anxiety for the first time, and our findings have significant implications for its early identification and treatment.
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Math anxiety is a negative affective reaction to situations involving math. Previous work demonstrates that math anxiety can negatively impact math problem solving by creating performance-related worries that disrupt the working memory needed for the task at hand. By leveraging knowledge about the mechanism underlying the math anxiety-performance relationship, we tested the effectiveness of a short expressive writing intervention that has been shown to reduce intrusive thoughts and improve working memory availability. Students (N = 80) varying in math anxiety were asked to sit quietly (control group) prior to completing difficulty-matched math and word problems or to write about their thoughts and feelings regarding the exam they were about to take (expressive writing group). For the control group, high math-anxious individuals (HMAs) performed significantly worse on the math problems than low math-anxious students (LMAs). In the expressive writing group, however, this difference in math performance across HMAs and LMAs was significantly reduced. Among HMAs, the use of words related to anxiety, cause, and insight in their writing was positively related to math performance. Expressive writing boosts the performance of anxious students in math-testing situations. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2014 APA, all rights reserved).
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We examined the potential effectiveness of four brief interventions, three behavioral and one nutritional, for helping high math-anxious college students regulate negative emotions immediately prior to a time-pressured arithmetic test. Participants with low versus high math anxiety performed a timed arithmetic task after practicing one of three short-term breathing exercises promoting focused attention, unfocused attention, or worry, and after consuming either 0 or 200 mg l-theanine. Overall, participants with high math anxiety underperformed relative to those with low math anxiety. This effect, however, was largely alleviated by a focused breathing exercise, which increased rated calmness and enhanced performance on the arithmetic test amongst those with high math anxiety. l-theanine supplementation showed only minimal effects. These results provide insights into the attentional mechanisms involved in regulating the negative emotions that lead to testing underperformance, and suggest that focused breathing exercises can be a useful, practical tool for helping address the negative impacts of math anxiety.
  • Psychol
Psychol. 3:1-11. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00162
Learning to relax: evaluating four brief interventions for overcoming the negative emotions accompanying math anxiety
  • T T Brunyé
  • C R Mahoney
  • G E Giles
  • D N Rapp
  • H A Taylor
  • R B Kanarek
Brunyé, T. T., Mahoney, C. R., Giles, G. E., Rapp, D. N., Taylor, H. A., and Kanarek, R. B. 2013. Learning to relax: evaluating four brief interventions for overcoming the negative emotions accompanying math anxiety. Learn. Individ. Differ. 27:1-7. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2013.06.008